business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

I wish I could admit that I hate picking on United Airlines, but they just keep finding strange ways to annoy me. A few months back I criticized United’s new president for his short, but useless (as I saw it) welcoming speech before the pre-flight safety video. If he wasn’t pointing out emergency exits, I wasn’t sure why I was listening to him. Now he’s back and he’s doing it again, but this time it’s worse.

Jeff Smisek’s new message touts United’s merger with Continental. Now I can understand his pride at that. But here’s what I wish he talked about: Tell me how the merged airline is bringing benefits to my fellow passengers and me. Tell me about the benefits of new routes or how the bigger company is able to produce efficiencies that keep my costs down and my experience up.

Instead, he tells me they are making great progress in painting planes with the new United/Continental logo and all I can think is why should I care about the paint job. Does it make the plane fly better? Will it stop the passenger in front of me from dropping their seat back into my lap? Why does this paint job matter?

It’s something we all need to think about. When we talk to our customers we have to talk about what matters to them. They care about cost, about the experience and they care about choice. In short, they care about themselves and their own experience and they really only listen when that’s what we say.

Otherwise a paint job is just a paint job. And then I start wondering how much of my ticket cost went to a paint job and why? After all, a new logo on a plane isn’t like new packaging on a product. The product sits on the shelf and needs to draw my attention. It needs to be updated, modern and it needs to attract me because it’s all about me, the consumer. An airplane is different. I’ve never once looked up, seen one flying in the sky and thought, “That’s the airline I want to fly. I love that color.”

The thing is, little changes do matter. I love it when stores post information explaining that their new refrigerated or frozen cases are more energy efficient and they explain why. It’s not a sign I read every time, but it makes something small matter to me. Likewise, when light bulbs are changed to CFLs or recycled materials are used in building materials or parking lots I like the information. I may not care that your logo is different but I do care about those other little touches.

If you explain it and help me see why it matters it becomes more than cosmetic—it starts mattering to me. And that might create some new competitive disadvantage. If it doesn’t impact my experience I don’t know why you are talking about it.

So here’s my advice to United. Talk to me about the really good changes you are making thanks to the merger. There are all kinds of ways that United is incorporating benefits from Continental and it’s in areas that impacts me, such as comfortable seats on long haul flights and bigger overhead storage areas. Those things matter and they’ll make me even happier to fly your airline. Put that stuff in a video and I’ll be really happy.

But one last thing United: While walking down the aisle to my seat—21c—something amazing happened. After row 14 the numbers suddenly skipped to row 20. When I made a crack about this strange numbering to a flight attendant, she explained that United has decided to standardize the number for exit rows. From now on, apparently, rows 20 and 21 mean exits and on my 757 rows 15 to 19 ceased to exist. Now there’s a good reason to do this and it’s because frequent flyers like me love the roomier exit row seats and want to make sure they are getting those seats. But the change hardly works if United doesn’t tell anyone and just waits for us to serendipitously learn the answer.

In other words it isn’t a benefit and it isn’t information until you tell it to me. And then it had better matter.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at . His book, “THE BIG PICTURE: Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available by clicking here .
KC's View:
This is a place where Michael and I differ. My feeling is that as long as United continues to give me free upgrades 25-30 percent of the time that I fly the friendly skies, they can paint the planes and number the aisles any damn way they want. And since the merger with Continental increases the number of flights upon which those upgrades may occur, I’m okay with that.