Untited airlines culture problem and how to solve it

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  • United CEO does not care about #customers happiness. Really?

    Lately, I have been thinking about United Airlines and its organizational culture.

    Initially, I thought about United Airlines culture because someone asked whether it is possible to build a customer-centric culture in a company that is NOT founded with the customer at the center. In other words, I received a challenge. I was told that is impossible to “turn a big ship” culturally. Especially when its existing culture that is not based on hospitality.

    Those who know me well know that, if you want me to do something, you need to tell me it is impossible. I wholeheartedly believe an organization like United Airlines can change its culture. In fact, it can become known for empathy-driven service and differentiated experience.

    Is it easy to do? No. But, is it impossible to do? Again, no.

    Creating Change through Organizational Culture

    When it comes to culture consulting, there is a method to the madness. There is a price to create a change of such scale. That price is not only financial. I will never forget the Jeanne Bliss podcast with Horst Schulze, Co-founder & Former COO of The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co. On the podcast, Schulze explained step-by-step how to create and maintain international hospitality standards. He even shared the emotional cost of letting go employees who were not on board. Today, we equate Ritz Carlton with intuitive, high end hospitality. But to get there, Schulze and his team paid the price.

    So yes, it is possible to turn the United Airlines culture ship around. And I would be excited to consult on the topic. As in the Ritz Carlton example, some people will need to be replaced. Culture starts a the top, but it does not end there. At every organizational level, you need “believers” and culture ambassadors. An organization like United Airlines needs more people to spread and reward the right behaviors. And to maintain the right, disciplined decisions.

    Can’t Really Make Customers Happy?

    The recent Inc.com article on United Airlines inspired me to think about the company and it organizational culture even more. First, let’s consider the title: “The CEO of United Airlines Says He Can’t Really Make Passengers Happy. The CEO of Delta Has a Brutal Response.”

    For those of us who bothered to click on the article and find the actual recording of the ABC News with Oscar Munoz, it is clear he did not intend to come across as a leader who is unwilling to try to make his customers happy. On the contrary, he says, in the future, competition will be more about the experience and service airlines provide. And he concedes this change is better for the customer.

    Why wasn’t that quote in the tile of the Inc.com article? The answer is culture. Yes, culture is that powerful. See, if the interview was with the CEO of JetBlue Airways, the readers would be conditioned to expect a story about hospitality, innovation, and great customer experience. Why? Because JetBlue Airways is known for those things.

    Unfortunately, United Airlines has made the news with stories about bad customer service. Naturally, the author of the article positioned Oscar Munoz’s words to fit with the majority of readers’ expectations about the brand.

    Organizational Culture Change Isn’t Easy

    I empathize with Oscar Munoz. Genuinely, I believe he wants his airline to deliver exceptional customer service. And, I think he would approve the expense for cookies and juices on board flights. But only if the business case to do so was presented to him in a way that made sense. So would the CFO of any for-profit organization.

    I had a similar experience a few months ago with Skift. The magazine took my words out of context and sandwiched them between statements that conveyed opinions different from mine. Media can be ruthless. Readers should give people the benefit of the doubt when they can. This is the price for free press. It is also the responsibility we all chose to have when we opted in for freedom of speech. So, the next time you read something outrageous that a public figure said, click more than once. Get to the source, and make your own judgement about the content you consume.

    How to Get Organizational Culture

    Back to the topic of organizational culture and how to get it right. Oscar Munoz (and any other business leader) can and should focus on it. Remember, good culture is good business.

    Although this may feel daunting at the onset, there are some concrete steps to ensure the right behaviors become a habit. However, like everything else in business, culture needs prioritization and funding.

    When you are ready, contact us to learn more about organizational culture. We will guide and support you through the tough decisions that come with every worthwhile change management program.

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    Wow Moments are a Customer Experience hot topic. Customer experience professionals ideate how to build, prioritize, finance, and measure these Wow Moments. Chip and Dan Heath wrote a whole book on the topic: The Power of Moments. No Wow Moment saves you from negative word of mouth if your brand fails to get the customer experience basics right or to deliver the expected brand experience consistently.

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    Organizational Culture and Access to Information

    By and large, people perceive culture as an HR discipline. The most common perception is that culture covers the soft side of performance. Culture is about how you do things, not so much about what you do. This approach to culture could not be more wrong. In fact, organizational culture is about so much more than a few words in a performance review sheet.  It is about leaders expressing values, and the action guidance their cultural behaviors provide.

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