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Munoz moves United on from scandal, but will customer service follow?

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United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz’s speech in New York this week seemed deliberately aimed at putting the dragged passenger scandal behind him and setting the company on a new forward-looking path. Will he succeed?

From the passion and genuineness of his speech, you cannot doubt that Munoz is serious about transforming the company. His frankness and determination were admirable. Employee morale was so low when he took over as CEO in late 2015 that when he began a round of meetings with employee groups to hear their concerns, some of them “spat and yelled at me with a passion,” he said. “Some said, ‘someone is going to hurt this little guy!’”

On the employee front, however, Munoz does appear to have turned a corner.  His  monumental effort to restore employee trust in its leadership and raise morale involved the listening, improving work conditions and improving some customer service offerings (better coffee) because he was told over and again “I am so sorry, Mr. Munoz, for having to keep saying I’m sorry”. But mostly, it involved new labor contracts with higher pay; deals that Munoz described Thursday as a “$1 billion investment”.

That combined all-out effort is delivering results; Munoz does, indeed, seem to have won the hearts and loyalty of his people. They know he has come through for them during a time of huge personal trauma for himself; Munoz almost died from a heart failure shortly after becoming CEO and then he underwent a heart transplant. But he was back at work less than two weeks after the second surgery. Hearing his story, no one can doubt his dedication to and love for United employees.

But there’s still a long way to go on the customer service front. Where Munoz’s speech fell short, I thought, was on what it will take to be “the best airline in the world”; which was his declared mission. Echoing thoughts he shared as a panelist earlier in June at the IATA AGM in Cancun, Munoz still seems to have a very narrow definition of what good airline service means. “Primarily, people want frequency, reliability and cost,” he said. In Cancun he was even more austere. Essentially, he said frequent fliers are impressed when they get to their destinations safely and on time.

My inbox tells me differently. Safety and on-time are the minimums; they are the most basic expectations. True customer service comes through the add-ons and by over-delivering on the contract. It can be the elaborate stuff: working onboard Wi-Fi, good IFE, personalized greetings, a nice meal, a seat with a little leg and elbow room. But far more often, it’s the small things that count (just as Munoz realized the small things, such as better break rooms, are important to staff). A smile at check in and boarding costs nothing. An extra walk down the aisle with water costs almost nothing. A bit of assistance to a parent struggling with infants costs nothing. A cheerful, we appreciate our customers demeanor. That’s what’s mostly been missing at United and the dragged passenger incident simultaneously crystallized passenger resentment at being treated like non-humans, while also highlighting a way to fight back: the smartphone video camera.

United employees, understandably, are grateful to and admiring of their CEO. They finally have a good leader. The question is, can they now learn to love their customers as much?

Karen Walker Karen.walker@penton.com

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