On September 24, 2013, United Airlines sent out an email announcing its renewed commitment to customer experience and the resurrection of its “Fly The Friendly Skies” tagline from decades past. The email read, “‘Friendly’ now means more than it ever did. It means being user‑friendly. In other words, flyer‑friendly. We’re giving you an unmatched global network with more onboard product features, better technology and, of course, great customer service.”
The very same day that United sent that email, a friend of mine, let’s call her Jenny, boarded a cross-country flight from Boston to San Francisco. She’s a loyal United customer with “1K” status, which means that she flies more than 100,000 miles a year on United.
As Jenny stepped on the plane that day, she explained to the flight attendant that she often gets chilly on long flights and asked if she could have a blanket. The flight attendant quickly asked where she was seated, and upon learning that she was in 12A, told Jenny that she could only give blankets to people in first class.
Jenny then nicely added that she was 1K. Would that make any difference? “No,” the flight attendant said. “If I give a blanket to you, then I’m going to have to give a blanket to everyone.”
Jenny walked back to row 12, put her suitcase in the overhead bin, and took her seat. And then she remembered the email she had received from United earlier in the day—and she got pissed. She whipped out her mobile phone, dialed the 1K hotline, and explained her situation. The well-intentioned representative on the other end of the line said, “Ok, here’s what I want you to do. I want you to walk up to the front of the plane and hand your phone to the flight attendant.”
You can probably guess what happened next. Jenny got her blanket, along with a heavy helping of backlash. When the flight attendants came through with the drink cart, they refused to serve—let alone look at—the woman now snuggled under her blanket in 12A.
“More onboard product features”? Not that Jenny saw. “Great customer service”? Not at all. United created much fanfare around its new Flyer Friendly ad campaign—but couldn’t keep the promises that it had made to one of its most valuable flyers that very same morning.
A few weeks after this email went out, I was chatting with one of the nicest United flight attendants I’ve ever met. She had a genuine passion for customer service—but when I mentioned this particular email, she just looked at me blankly. “You know,” I said. “The one talking about about being flyer friendly?” Nope, she had no idea what I was talking about.
So here’s what apparently happened: The marketing team at United decided to make a bunch of promises to its customers—but failed to communicate those promises to the people responsible for delivering on them.
Don’t make this same mistake. When rolling out ad campaigns related to customer experience, ensure you’ve got solid internal communication plan in place well in advance of your campaign launch date—and equip the rest of the organization to live up to customers’ new expectations.