A Day with United Management: Brand Standards, Flying the Friendly Skies Again, and Sales

You guys still with me? It’s been a long series, but we have finally come to the last post. We left off yesterday after my tour of the NOC. The sun had set, and it was getting toward the end of my day, but the next stop was Tom O’Toole, SVP Marketing and Loyalty and President of MileagePlus. (See Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)

[Disclosure: United paid for my flights and hotel]

When I sat down with Tom, he began asking me several questions about my thoughts on various aspects of the airline. He seemed genuinely interested in the responses but soon enough, it was my turn to ask the questions again. Tom struck me as being very thoughtful and measured with his answers.

Willis Sears Tower

Brand Standards
Echoing an earlier conversation with Mark Krolick, the issue of brand standards came up once again with Tom. Tom explained the problem this way. Every day, you can go out to O’Hare and see a 777 parked next to a regional jet. What should be the common onboard experience across those airplanes in a way that was financially viable for the airline?

If you think this was a pie in the sky discussion, it wasn’t. I get the feeling Tom is a very precise person, and he proved it by explaining the four stages in making the brand standards reality in almost scientific detail. Here’s my summary.

  1. Assess where we are today – This is completely done for the onboard experience and is almost done for the ground experience.
  2. Define what the standards should be – This is almost entirely done.
  3. Express the standards in hundreds of product specs – This is about half done.
  4. Put an operational timeline to achieve full compliance – This will vary. Some things can be done very quickly while others may take years.

Fly the Friendly Skies, Part 2
After this, the conversation turned once again to the “Friendly Skies” campaign. He said many of the same things as Mark Krolick, but he gave a little more insight as well. The airline tested a ton of different taglines, and this was the clear winner. But the key for them was trying to pivot the tagline to mean something different than it used to. They couldn’t let the campaign make people think they were getting that ’70s style of service – white glove treatment, serving lobster, etc.

Instead, they needed to turn the tagline so that “friendly” was actually referring to being “user-friendly.” They even tested “user-friendly” as a tagline but that wasn’t nearly as well-received. So they needed to take the old tagline and change the meaning of “friendly.”

I asked whether he was worried that regardless of how they position it, people will still have preconceived notions of what it should mean. He did not hesitate; he’s convinced they can make this shift.

But what does it mean to be “user-friendly” anyway? It means, according to Tom, being a technology-enabled, information-driven, customer service organization. They need to provide information to people quickly and accurately. But they also need to be relevant, targeting travelers with what they want most. Tom mentioned Amazon a couple of times. He wants their merchandising efforts to look a lot like those of Amazon.

It was now after 5, and I was exhausted. But there was one more meeting to have. I finished the day with Dave Hilfman, SVP of Worldwide Sales.

When you meet Dave, there’s no mistaking that he’s in sales. He’s incredibly friendly with high energy and you immediately like the guy. Oh, and his office was full of holiday goodies. After having some cookies, it was time to talk shop.

United’s sales efforts haven’t won them many fans over the last couple years. Despite the connection to Continental’s well-regarded sales team (from where Dave came), the poor operation and tech problems really started to hamper the sales team’s ability to do the job at hand. As things improve operationally for the airline, the sales team’s effectiveness improves as well.

So what exactly are they doing to right the ship? Getting SHARES (their reservation system) to function properly is a big part of that. Dave said they “feel a lot better” today about that piece of it. But there are other things within the organization that they’re doing to improve their performance as well.

They’re working on improving their communication. In particular, they want to make sure that corporate clients get information quickly so that they know when there’s an issue to be resolved. According to Dave, United has also decided to empower its agents to fix problems more quickly now. That’s how it used to be at Continental but after the merger, things “tightened up.” A key part of that is making sure that the Executive Accounts phone desk is open 24 hours a day. That begins in January. (Delta has already done that.)

One thing that corporate accounts won’t like, however, is that they are going to start better enforcing compliance with terms of their agreements. After the merger, they loosened things up but now they’re going to start coming down harder on contracted companies that decide to spread their business around despite their promises.

I asked Dave what corporate accounts tell him they hate the most – some kind of policy or procedure that makes their lives miserable. In general, Dave said the biggest issue is that corporate accounts don’t like change fees (like everyone else). So providing waivers for that is a tool they can use in crafting their corporate agreements.

The conversation finished up with a little talk about New York. Delta has been very vocal about all the share of corporate business it’s taking in New York, so what did United think? Dave said they aren’t seeing any loss of business at all. And now they’re going to get more aggressive. They’ve spent the last year really trying to service accounts and keep them happy when things were going bad. Now they’re moving into selling mode.

And with that, we were done… so I thought. On the way out of the building, I went and saw a couple of the Customer Experience folks. I also had the chance to meet a few of the people on the social media team, those people who respond to all our tweets every day.

Finally, as we approached 6, my day was done. I was exhausted, but I immediately perked up once I felt the sting of the cold air as I left the building.

[Thanks to United for bringing me out, putting me up, and arranging interviews with so many people.]

(See Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, )

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