Customer Interaction Analysis for an Airline

Dr. George Gafencu, DBA, PMP, DTM

Customer interaction analysis for an airline is the topic of the current posting. Capella University accepted the doctoral research paper in February 2019. United Continental Holdings (NASDAQ: UAL) is a major airline in the US, having a market share of 17.5%, behind American Airlines Group Inc. (21.3%) and Delta Air Lines Inc. (22.4%) (Soshkin, 2018).  The company has experienced in 2018 incidents such as forceful removal of passengers through no fault of their own, destruction of valuable property and pet deaths during flights, and customer dissatisfaction, all damaging the brand of the organization. The company has a strong foothold online, having a Facebook page with 1.1M followers. The background information revealed that the company promotes customer advocacy using a sophisticated marketing message, detailed in the background of the study, subject to improvements recommended.

The social media reflects additionally negative customer feedback the company has, and the brand of the company experienced severe damage (Kaufman, 2015). The company took some measures to restore the goodwill with the consumers, albeit late and not always appearing sincere. United Airlines seems to take action on incidents offline, and the outcome of these incidents appear to be private, as shown in the marketing analysis of the service quality complaints. The affected customers do not post positive feedback about their experience with United Airlines solving issues, contributing to the general opinion that the company buys the silence of the complainers rather than addressing the problems in a win-win situation. The company must do more to resolve complaints, with the risk of irremediably damaging its brand. The company could implement sensitivity training for its employees, use to a more substantial degree Twitter to solve customer issues, implement community initiatives, and use more of its social media to promote customer advocacy.

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Background Analysis

United Airlines’ Facebook page (United Airlines, 2018) has almost 1.2M followers. The company has a sophisticated marketing strategy online, posting no more than once or twice a day, as recommended by the marketing theory to avoid brand dilution (Kaufman, 2015). The company creates innovative cards on holidays (celebrated Valentine’s Day 2019), posted videos of new destinations (Hawaii), posted videos about customers delighted with the services, initiated sweepstakes online, and posted about changes in service because of unfavorable weather patterns. United Airlines, having international operations, opened public Facebook pages for countries such as the UK and Japan. The organization could use hashtags, integration of blogs, and online articles in their marketing strategy implementation (Kaufman, 2015).

In recent years, the company experienced significant public relations incidents onboard its aircraft. In April 2018, the company removed a passenger from an overbooked flight to make room for crew returning to their base after no passenger agreed to give up a seat (Christina Zdanowicz, 2019). Other passengers filmed the incident and posted the video on social media, creating a negative image of the company. The company apologized and made changes to its passenger seat assignment policies.

Another notable incident, appearing almost at the same time with the forcible removal of the passenger from a flight, concerned the destruction of a 17th-century viola during travel (Deabler, 2018). United denied initially any wrongdoing and attempted to downplay the value of the instrument, creating a public uproar on its policies. The last incident impacting the branding of the company is the death of pets inside the overhead bins, where the passenger needed to place them at the insistence of flight attendants based on company policy. The post-analysis revealed that United has a high reported rate of pet deaths during transportation due to its policies (McCartney, 2018; Powers, 2018).

The incidents noted earlier, all appearing short distance one from another, created pressure on United Airlines and backlash in public opinion, with the company appearing insensitive and careless about the needs of its customers. The company started reviewing its internal processes leading to incidents similar to the ones reported and was not very fast answering them. United Airlines started revamping its damaged reputation by hiring top-talent for its communications (Cameron, 2018). The company still has work to do to recover from these incidents. An analysis of the Facebook page shows that United Airlines has more severe customer backlash in its Facebook pages concerning the quality of its service. The quality of services is the topic of the detailed analysis conducted in the next section, damaging the reputation of the company more reliably even than the incidents related earlier.

Marketing Analysis of Service Quality Complaints

Figure 1 shows a customer complaint about a long flight delay from Hawaii, one of the newer routes United Airlines started. The answer of the company was to have the customer engage the company privately. There is no feedback from the customer or the company on the matter the issue was resolved. Figure one depicts the deep disappointment of the customer with the company.

customer interaction analysis
Figure 1. The customer was dissatisfied with the quality of service at a flight delay.

Figure 2 shows a customer slightly disappointed because there is no food offered complimentary to the ticket received. The company acknowledged the complaint and recommendation. There are more complaints about the meals on flights under the dialogue depicted, and there is no follow up by the company other than acknowledging the recommendation.

customer interaction analysis
Figure 2. The customer issued a complaint associated with a recommendation.

Figure 3 shows more complaints about the quality of the service to Hawaii. There is a disappointment from passengers, given the service from the continental US to Hawaii is expensive, and the service does not seem to justify the cost charged.

customer interaction analysis
Figure 3. Customers complained about the quality of seating and entertainment onboard.

Figure 4 shows various complaints about onboard services on routes to Hawaii. The company did not provide any feedback about the manner they resolved these complaints. United Airlines has serious complaints about their new routes to Hawaii, based on the analysis performed on the complaints displayed on their Facebook page. These are long flights from the continental US, and the company appears under the expected quality in what concerns the food offered onboard, the inflight entertainment system, and the quality of the seating in the aircraft. The company gathers complaints about service on other routes, too, but not as often as the routes from Hawaii.

customer interaction analysis
Figure 4. Various customers complaints concerning the onboard service.

An inspection of the United Airline’s Twitter account reveals the same brushed up appearance as its Facebook account. The company appears to have removed any negative mention of the company on its Twitter feeds. That may punish the brand as well, as there is no evidence the company even considers complaints via Twitter. The company seems secretive about the manner they resolve complaints. They take the complaints offline, and then there is no update on the degree of satisfaction for the customer in what regards the solution to close the conflict. The lack of public responsiveness and the incidents mentioned in the previous section shows United Airlines as a company not caring for its customers, with a direct impact on its branding. The following section contains recommendations to the company for improving its standing with its customers.

Recommendations

One of the factors contributing to the quality of service is the attitude of the staff in the hospitality industry (Bona, Kim, & Heo, 2016). United Airlines has work to do in what regards the attitude of its employees, given the incidents they had and their reaction to that, and the fact that the company received harsh criticism in the social media, and not necessarily on their social media pages. The company started having specialized training on solving conflicts and allowed its flight attendants to offer beverages as compensation for issues happening onboard (Matyszczyk, 2019). However, some incidents happening onboard the aircraft, racially or otherwise charged (Phillips, 2018), did not have good reception with the public, and the company needs to start a racial sensitivity training with its employees, similar to other companies facing the same kind of incidents in their stores (Simpson, 2018). The company would need to improve its communication with the customers, first by identifying the negative feelings these customers have, acknowledge publicly in an empathic way the issue, take it offline to resolve it, and then post something again publicly to address similar concerns.

The customers can be part of value co-creation or co-destruction online (Zhang, Lu, Torres, & Chen, 2018). The co-creation may appear via customers delighted, valued, who receive incentives, reliable service, and quick recovery from issues. United Airlines has a good grasp of co-creation activities by publishing success stories of delighted customers, generating sweepstakes contests, and generally engaging its customer base. An opportunity to increase customer advocacy (Kaufman, 2015) is engaging the customer in focus groups when designing new travel routes or features. The company does not have any survey or mediated focus group shown on its social media changes. United Airlines does not seem to engage in CSR activities. By engaging in community activities, the company could increase its customer loyalty (Arevalo & Aravind, 2017; Cau Ngoc & Oyotode, 2015).

The customers can be the way for value co-destruction online (Zhang et al., 2018). The co-destructive behavior appears from rude employee behavior, confrontations with the customers, technology failures, the lack of outlets for complaints, and a customer’s desire to take a swipe at the company following perception of inadequate services. Employee behavior is the area where United Airlines has most of the work to do. The company could initiate sensitivity training with its employees, generating goodwill and co-creation. Frequent communication and quick resolution of issues would bust value co-creation, too. United Airlines already has a healthy passenger incentive plan, achieved by partnering with Chase Bank, allowing passengers to accumulate travel miles by booking travel or spending everyday money on their Chase cards. One more area the company could do better is requiring customer feedback after most of the interactions, and institute a robust voice of customer program (Kaufman, 2015). The company could use Twitter better to solve customer complaints, as Twitter is the native language for word of mouth (“Tweeting your way out “, 2017). When answering complaints via Twitter, the company needs to project a level of effort spent resolving the issue, empathy, and adaptability to have an adequate response.

Conclusions

United Airlines experienced several high-profile incidents in 2018, which damaged the reputation of the company and received harsh criticism in the social media (passengers removed forcibly from aircraft through no fault of their own, destruction of valuable property during a flight, the death of pets stored in overhead bins at the insistence of the airline). The company faced harsh criticism about its new Hawaii route (food not offered onboard as part of the ticket, the flight entertainment regularly not working, and the seating uncomfortable for such a long flight). The company received criticism for its customer service in general. The company approached a tone of secrecy for all these complaints by taking them offline and not offering any feedback on the outcome for these issues. United Airlines has been slow to address the significant issues noted by the media and received additional criticism for that, appearing careless towards the need of its customer base. The company needed to change the communication tone used towards its public. United Airlines could improve the stance with its customer base by initiating sensitivity training, empower more its employees when resolving issues, being more transparent when resolving issues, and engaging more the customers on its social media, via online surveys and mediated focus groups to assess the efficiency of their new initiatives.

References

Arevalo, J., & Aravind, D. (2017). Strategic outcomes in voluntary CSR: Reporting economic and reputational benefits in principles-based initiatives. Journal of Business Ethics, 144, 201-217. doi:10.1007/s10551-015-2860-5

Bona, K., Kim, S., & Heo, C. Y. (2016). Analysis of satisfiers and dissatisfiers in online hotel reviews on social media. International Journal of Contemporary Hospitality Management, 28, 1915-1936. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1108/IJCHM-04-2015-0177

Cameron, D. (2018, May 03). United hires former white house press chief in bid to revamp image; United wants to escape from a reputation for poor service, as well as a series of high-profile incidents. Wall Street Journal (Online). Retrieved from https://www/wsj.com

Cau Ngoc, N., & Oyotode, R. (2015). The moderating effect of marketing capabilities on the relationship between changes in CSR perceptions and changes in brand equity. International Management Review, 11, 17-25.

Christina Zdanowicz, E. G. (2019, April 10). Passenger dragged off overbooked United flight. CNN. Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2017/04/10/travel/passenger-removed-united-flight-trnd/index.html

Deabler, A. (2018, January 9). Musicians outraged after airline severely damages 17th century instrument. Fox News. Retrieved from https://www.foxnews.com/travel/musicians-outraged-after-airline-severely-damages-17th-century-instrument

Kaufman, I. (2015). Digital marketing. New York, NY: Routledge.

Matyszczyk, C. (2019, February 16). United Airlines startling new way of saying sorry to annoyed passengers.  Retrieved from https://www.inc.com/chris-matyszczyk/united-airlines-startling-new-way-of-saying-sorry-to-annoyed-passengers.html

McCartney, S. (2018, Mar 20). On your next trip, leave the pets at home; Airlines don’t accommodate animals well, either in the cabin or the cargo hold, but if you need to fly with them, get an early start on preparations. Wall Street Journal (Online). Retrieved from https://www.wsj.com

Phillips, K. (2018). Nigerian woman kicked off United flight after white man complained she was ‘pungent,’ suit says. The Washington Post.

Powers, M. (2018, April 4). More dogs die on United than on any other airline. Here’s why. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/dr-gridlock/wp/2018/04/04/more-dogs-die-on-united-than-on-any-other-airline-heres-why/

Simpson, I. (2018). Black men arrested at Starbucks hope scandal sparks change.

Soshkin, M. (2018). IBISWorld industry report 48111B: Domestic airlines in the US. Retrieved from IBISWorld database

Tweeting your way out of disaster. (2017). Strategic Direction, 33, 17-19.

United Airlines. (2018). United home page. Retrieved from https://www.facebook.com/United/

Zhang, T., Lu, C., Torres, E., & Chen, P.-J. (2018). Engaging customers in value co-creation or co-destruction online. The Journal of Services Marketing, 32, 57-69.

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