Scott Kirby, United’s President and second in command, understands how essential providing good customer service is. But can his leadership empower employees to deliver it?
Speaking to employees in Houston this week in a recording obtained by Live and Let’s Fly, Kirby stressed the importance of customer service:
We need to, in 2019 and beyond, start to change how people feel about United Airlines. And a lot of time I will hear from employees that will say, “Why does United always get beat up in the press and Southwest gets a free pass? It’s not fair” Maybe it’s not fair. Also completely irrelevant whether it’s fair or not, because it is what it is.
And I would argue there’s a rationale for it. To a frequent flyer who knows all the rules, who understands how to get through TSA, who knows our rules about changing flights and when they can upgrade and when they can’t, that feels professional, because it’s black and white. I know all the rules. To somebody who doesn’t fly often, the rules don’t make sense. They’re already tense, they’re stressed, trying to get through security, trying to get to the airport on time, figure out where to park their cars, you know, all that stuff. And then they get here and what doesn’t make sense to them feels like a set of black and white rules, that we’re this big company that just doesn’t care.
So a lot of this is about empowering you to take care of customers and do the right thing for customers, but getting all of us to start to recognize that we’ve got to change how people feel and so that they feel like we care. And that really is our mission, and if I have one request from [for] all of you it’s to do that. To start to think about how people perceive us, how our customers perceive us. Actually, it’s not even just our customers, it’s the community at large. How others perceive United Airlines.
Clearly, Kirby understands the correlation between treating customers with respect and dignity and how the airline as an entity is perceived. Kirby is particularly perspicacious about why legacy airlines like United are more likely to receive negative feedback simply based upon their structure.
But I suspect many employees in the audience might have found Kirby’s admonition as an “unfunded mandate”. To be clear, I do not think providing good service costs anything. A smile and empathy should not require additional coercion in a customer-facing industry. But that’s the attitude I sense among front-line employees (generally).
Nevertheless, we have stories out of Houston like a United employee shoving a senior citizen or calling a black passenger a monkey. Put simply, something is broken. Kirby should not have even had to say what he said. But it needed saying. Stressing good customer service must be underscored constantly.
Flight attendants will say how is this possible when you have cut one flight attendant onboard and reduced the quality and quanity of onboard service? Gate agents will say how is this possible when you have stressed the importance of D:0 (on-time departures) even more than good customer service? Reservation agents will say how is this possible when United’s website is broken in so many ways?
And these are all fair arguments. Perhaps what Kirby is saying that customer service at United will never be high as Southwest due to fundamental business model differences that cannot be changed. I don’t buy that (see Delta), but I go back to my earlier point: treating others the way you want to be treated should not require more resources or threats.
It’s often as simple as a little empathy and a smile. That’s all customers needs and that is so often lacking.
Kirby shared some other interesting insight which I may share later in the week. In the meantime, he gets it when it comes to customer service. While he’s a frequent target for attacks due to his bean-counter mentality (which I also question), I think Kirby deserves more credit than he’s given for accurately understanding the key issues facing United and tackling them directly.