I woke up this morning to an interesting email from Scott Kirby, CEO of United Airlines. He announced a pretty radical change for the company:
“We’re making a big change … for the better,” Kirby writes. “To accompany you on your travels in the United States, we have decided to permanently eliminate the modification fees.”
Specifically, Kirby says United customers can say goodbye to changing fees on most economy tickets (and all premium tickets) when traveling to the United States, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. . (United have extended change fee waivers to international destinations and to basic economy class tickets at least until the end of the year.) Additionally, Kirby says that starting in January, “United will be the only US airline to allow customers in all classes of service, fly free same day. “
A big enough change? Yes. And it looks like United couldn’t wait to make the announcement: the timestamp on the email I received was 3:36 a.m. EST.
A thorough analysis of this email and its context teaches a subtle but powerful lesson from emotional intelligence, the ability to make emotions work for you, rather than against you. It also reveals something more: a shift in mindset that could have a ripple effect across the airline industry.
A radical change of direction
It’s no secret that airlines have been severely beaten throughout the coronavirus pandemic. It’s part of what makes United’s policy change so huge.
Kirby explains in a video accompanying the e-mail:
You might remember that when we came out of previous tough times, we made tough decisions to survive financially, but sometimes at the expense of customer service, either adding new fees or removing things that improve the business. experience of flying, simply because they were. too expensive.
United Airlines will not follow the same playbook after this crisis emerges. Instead, we’re taking a whole different approach and looking for ways to better serve you instead of defaulting to discounts.
With this statement, Kirby admits that his company has made a deadly sin when it comes to good business: no longer striving to please the customer.
Of course, United were not alone. At times, it seemed that competitors Delta and American Airlines were competing to see who could come up with the most nickel means and pay customers through additional fees.
What makes all this worse is that while some of these fees are being passed on to airlines trying to survive hard times, they have stuck when the airlines started to make huge profits. They were happy to line their pockets as customers grew increasingly unhappy with the service provided.
But Kirby, who took over as CEO of United just a few months ago, says the company is ready to take a different, customer-service-focused approach.
“When customers tell us where we can improve, removing these fees is often the number one request,” says Kirby. The new CEO also said the company “is doubling down on its customer experience enhancement offering” and United customers should “stay tuned for exciting new announcements in the coming weeks.”
Would it have been better for United to make these changes before their backs were against the wall? Sure. But while it can inspire legacy airlines to compete to please customers, instead of cutting them short, it will be a welcome change nonetheless.
What does emotional intelligence have to do with it?
So where does emotional intelligence come into play?
First of all, it helps to know a bit more about United’s new CEO. A seasoned airline veteran, Kirby held senior positions at US Airways and American Airlines before becoming President of United in 2016.
At that time, however, Kirby was known for his ability to make cold, calculating business decisions that save companies, rather than the warm, fuzzy decisions that help build the brand. My colleague Bill Murphy Jr. described it as having “a reputation for being straightforward and focused on numbers”, and to make political decisions that were not well received by employees.
But here’s the problem with emotional intelligence: Like traditional intelligence, it is different from person to person. And a major facet of what we call EQ these days is the ability to recognize when we’re wrong and make changes.
In addition, it is often in times of tragedy or major upheaval that we have the opportunity – and the motivation – to make these changes.
In the past, Kirby may have focused more on reducing costs than on customer satisfaction. But his intention to make these kinds of changes early in his tenure as CEO is a good sign.
It’s also not the first time we’ve seen this from Kirby. After announcing a controversial employee rewards program a few years ago, Kirby received a strong reaction from his people. Did he progress anyway, confident that these employees would adapt?
Instead, Kirby admitted he was wrong, saying he and his team “misjudged how these changes would be received.” Kirby then paused the program so he can review employee feedback and figure out the right way to proceed.
This is emotional intelligence in action.
Will Kirby continue to focus on improving the employee and customer experience? Time will tell us.
But if he does, he just might give United the fighting chances they need to survive.