Hey, United, People Are More Important Than Stuff

That goes for the rest of us, too.

I was flying back from Ireland yesterday and United forced us once again to listen to Jeff Smisek sell his $500 million fleet upgrades and new website forms before the safety video. What the video didn’t say was more important than what it said, to your business and to mine.

The conspicuous and flagrant foul being committed against the customer in this video is that United has no plans to spend any of the $500 million on their people or their customers, just their stuff. They are hoping fancy cup holders and more website forms will cover for core customer service issues that have reached epic proportions. There are two very serious lesson in this approach for all of us who own businesses:

1) People buy great marketing once. New seat cushions and website forms will maybe get some people to buy one more flight, but if nothing has changed at the airport or on the airplane, it will be a wasted $500 million.
2) People, both employees and customers, are more important than stuff. United is quite confident they aren’t.

Epically Bad Customer Service
Since March, United has struggled with customer complaints at a level never seen before in the airline industry. United now accounts for more than half of all of the complaints filed by passengers against the entire airline industry, a staggering statistic. And yet Smisek wants us to be impressed with his new stuff.

In July, for example, just 64 percent of his flights operated on time, and United ran dead last among major carriers in baggage handling. New TVs on the planes won’t fix that. To no surprise, it’s hurt their bottom line – passenger traffic on United fell about 2 percent in the quarter that ended yesterday.

Jon Taylor, a frequent flier and chairman of the University of St. Thomas political science department, said he’s noticed “a marked decrease in customer service and employee motivation”. Smisek’s response? Buy new airplane seats and create some more blind communication website forms.

Do the Hard Thing – Fix Your People Problems
Dealing with people is hard. United has a lot of problems in that area, both internally and externally. After an epically bad experience with them in February, their Director of Baggage Services offered a cash settlement. I asked if I could instead do a seminar with his people in Houston on customer service. He agreed and was talking with my Chief Relationship Officer about dates, then ran it up the flag pole and a month later it was reversed out.

The “VP of Customer Experience” didn’t help, either. I love the ironic title – he gets paid for just ensuring we all have a customer experience. He should get paid a lot – we’re all having a lot of customer experiences.

What’s the lesson for us?
1) Don’t hide behind your stuff, your cool product, your snazzy website, your pretty mailer or your presentation skills. Fix your people problems. Create a culture that attracts the right people, then figure out how you all can create the best customer service for your clients.

2) Stop sinking all your money into clever marketing. Instead deliver a better product with the best customer experience. If you do, people will seek you out again and again to do business with them. It’s not your stuff they love – with almost no exceptions, they can get comparable stuff (or airline tickets) somewhere else. What they want is for human beings to treat them like human beings.

Jack Stelzer, a Houston-based independent airline consultant recently commented about United, “In the long term if they continue to abuse the customer, the customer will go away.”

Your Real Assets Aren’t Stuff
Don’t fool yourself. The only real assets you have is your culture, the people it attracts or repels, and the customers who love you. The rest of it is just noise and distraction. Don’t put out a noise and distraction video about your great stuff like Smisek did. Put one out about your great people and how they treat their customers.

Then go do it. It’s not easy, but it’s simple. And it will ensure you will have a great business for a long time to come.