United Gets Beaten Down Over PhoCusWright Presentation on Customer Experience

It’s been a long but interesting few days here at PhoCusWright. Mostly, I’m here to meet with people and learn more about their companies, so I haven’t been attending too many of the sessions. That being said, there was one presentation I absolutely had to attend: “Customer Experience and Flying: Not an Oxymoron.” Oh yeah, and this was presented by United. I figured it would get ugly, and I was right.

Tim Simonds, Managing Director, Customer Strategy and Metrics, first gave a presentation that was United Gets Roughed Up at PhoCusWrightentirely focused on the premium experience that United is trying to create. He used many of the buzzwords out there – they want to be “best in class” and they have a “bias for action,” and yes, he even pulled out the “purchase funnel.” Let me try to translate.

United is trying to provide an excellent premium product on its international fleet. The airline wants to really excel at delivering when the customer experiences the product, and this includes everything from the right seat/bed to little things as well . . . for the premium customer. The airline has a first class lobby at O’Hare to create a great experience on the ground, and they’ve even taken the agents that work there to the Disney Institute to give them training on customer service.

We were also shown a video with, as I jotted in my notes, “dramatic piano music and backdrops of Chicago.” This was all about the premium seat, and it made me wonder why they even bothered putting it together.

And that was that. Sounds good, right? Yeah, well if you’re flying international premium class then it is pretty good but there are a couple problems that came to mind immediately.

  1. Not once was the back of the plane mentioned in the presentation
  2. On time performance didn’t come up in the prepared remarks

I thought it was rather odd that these wouldn’t be discussed, but fear not, it came up immediately after the presentation was done. See, PhoCusWright has a Talkback feature where two people from the industry come in after the presentation to gang up and ask questions. This time, we had Josh Weiss, Delta’s Managing Director of delta.com and Self-Service alongside Jim Young, Frontier’s Vice President of Marketing, Sales, and Distribution (though he has a much longer history in the industry with other companies).

Apparently, Josh and I were on the same page, because he immediately addressed my first point above. He said something to the effect of, “I see a lot about the premium product but what about everyone else?”

Tim then clarified that United’s strategy is to provide a good experience for everyone and a great experience for premium passengers, but we didn’t get any details of what that might mean other than saying that good service was important.

Jim then jumped in and said that everything United appears to be doing is playing catch up. What are they doing to differentiate themselves?

Tim said that service would be the differentiator.

Josh wanted to know what else they were doing besides sending 200 people to Disney for training. What are they doing to help everyone else at the airline?

Tim said they’re having meetings with people every day and they’re really trying to make sure that management is setting them up to succeed. I’d guess few employees would say management is doing a good job of that right now, so there’s a lot of work to be done here.

On time performance did finally come up in discussion and Tim said they were making progress on that. I certainly hope so, because while the details didn’t come up on stage, I looked it up and found that they were 17th out of 19 airlines in September and they’re in 18th place for the full year. They’re also in the bottom half of the pack for lost bags (12 out of 19 in September) and they have well above the average level of complaints. So again, there’s a ton of work to do.

Josh had a good question that seemed to be almost an afterthought, but it was important that it was asked. He wanted to know what “class” the airline was trying to be in when it said it wanted to be “best in class.” Were airlines like Singapore and Lufthansa included?

Tim responded that no, they weren’t. They’re only looking at North American carriers. And then he said, “For us to say we want to be as good as foreign flag carriers is overstretching.” Ouch. So they want to be the best of the worst, apparently.

At this point, everyone started piling on. An SMS showed up on the screen that said, “All this focus on the customer but where were they in that video? I only saw a bunch of suits in downtown Chicago.” Good point.

Then an audience member noted that the magic of Disney is that they treat everyone well while United is “abandoning the back.” Tim tried to respond that you get a very different experience at the Grand Floridian then you do at Port Orleans (at DisneyWorld), but in my eyes that isn’t comparing apples to apples here. I thought about this as the session ended and we all left the room.

United (along with most legacy airlines) doesn’t understand which of its travelers are premium, so it’s pretty ridiculous for them to focus so intently on that area. It rewards its frequent fliers, but those people could have bought the cheapie fares for all their flights. Meanwhile, someone who has never flown United but buys a full fare walkup ticket won’t even get to sit in Economy Plus.

Putting it in DisneyWorld terms, you could have one traveler who goes to DisneyWorld 25 times a year, pays $80, and gets to stay in the Grand Floridian since he comes in so often. Meanwhile, you could have another customer who pays $500 for his only visit of the year and gets put in Port Orleans. That’s not how Disney treats its customers and it’s not how airlines should either. I won’t even get into the fact that even the lowest paying Disney guests are treated very well whereas United has a lot of work to do all around.

In the end, Tim took all the shots pretty well considering that his employer deserved them all, but I ended up almost feeling sorry for the guy. United has a lot of work to do, and they probably shouldn’t be giving a presentation with this title until they get all the basics in order.

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