SERVICE POWER: Developing an Eye for Detail on United Airlines

by Ron Kaufman

I flew United Airlines Business Class from Singapore to Hong Kong last week and found myself in an airline seat that was absolutely padded for pleasure:

* Four adjustments for the seat recline, seat depth, lower leg and foot supports,

* One lever for additional lumbar (back) support,

* An electronic button for a gentle "rolling massage" throughout the flight (as nice as it sounds),

* Headrest adjustment with "side wings" to support the head during sleep,

* Two lights: one overhead illuminator and one flexible "reading lamp" just over the shoulder at eye level,

* A power point for plugging in your laptop computer,

* A telephone for making calls anywhere in the world,

* A special "pouch" in the back of the seat in front of me to hold reading glasses, palmtop computer, etc. - just the kind of stuff that might otherwise fall into the big back-of-seat pocket and be forgotten,

* Personal video screen with 7 video selections (including some first run movies) and 19 audio channels (including some oldies),

* Noise cancelling headphones that (really do) eliminate ambient aircraft noise while listening to music or watching the movie.

I was so impressed. I decided to write some positive feedback for United on the spot and asked the friendly cabin crew for a "comment card" and a pen. She handed me a pen from her pocket that read "Narita Tokyu Hotel" and said she would look for a comment card, but wasn't sure there were any on board.

She returned and handed me a United Airlines writing kit with 3 postcards, 2 envelopes, and 2 sheets of United Airlines stationary in an attractive blue folder. She confirmed there were no "comment cards" on board the flight.

That was odd. Simple "comment cards" are cheap to print, easy to use, fast to hand out and collect. The fancy writing kit costs the airline a whole lot more, and doesn't focus customer feedback towards the topic or the airline.

But stranger still was the pen. "Narita Tokyu Hotel"?

"Don't you have any UNITED pens?" I asked. She blushed and replied "No. We used to carry them, but we dont any more. But passengers still ask us for pens all the time, so we take extra ones from the hotels where we stay."

"Really!?" I laughed. "United installed these great new seats and hands out fancy writing kits, but doesn't carry inexpensive plastic pens on board for passengers?"

She grinned sheepishly and said she would bring me a sample of what United *does* provide to business class passengers who want to jot a note, write a letter, complete an immigration form or fill out a (non-existent) comment card.

Moments later she returned and handed me a....Golf Pencil! About 3.5" long, these little blue puppies are sharp as a tack and emblazoned with the United Airlines name and logo in white.

This is "financial savings" upside down!

Sitting in a million-dollar airline seat you can get a classy writing kit just by asking...but seek out a ballpoint pen and United gives you a tiny little golf pencil. Who wants to write a letter on a long airline flight with a golf pencil?

The pencil comes pre-sharpened to a pointy little tip. But use it once and the tip goes blunt. Of course United can't give the next passenger a golf pencil with a blunt tip, so after each use, the little pencils are thrown away! (And no, they don't carry a pencil sharpener on board. I asked.)

Maybe passengers will take the golf pencils home as souvenirs? Not likely. That sharp little point has no cap. Where are you going to carry it? And the soft lead of a golf pencil rubs off on everything. What are you going to carry it in?

Budget, of course, was at the heart of the matter. The cabin crew explained that too many folks kept asking for United Airlines pens!

Penny foolish: When a business class customer takes a United Airlines pen back home or to the office, United's name is seen each and every time the pen is used. An average pen lasts hundreds if not thousands of uses. In advertising terms, thats a lot of brand name impressions on the existing customer base. But who gets all those valuable advertising impressions in United Airlines case?

Why it's the "Narita Tokyu Hotel"!

Well, not quite. Another hour into the flight the cabin crew (really did) come back with a shy request, "Excuse me, Mr. Kaufman. Can I have the pen back, please? Another passenger needs it..."

* * *

Key Lesson #1: Be sure *your* products keep pace with industry improvements. Other airlines better take note of Uniteds terrific seating. For long-haul flights in upper classes of travel (where airline profits are really made), seat enhancements do make a difference.

Key Lesson #2: Don't neglect the little things that make a difference to your customers. I'll bet the manager who selected golf pencils for United's business class passengers didn't actually use one to sign the purchase order.