United Airlines gives employees the digital tools to make customers happy
As CIO of United Airlines, Jason Birnbaum is laser focused on using technology and data to enable the company’s 86,000 employees to create as seamless a customer travel experience as possible. “Our goal is to improve the entire travel process from when you plan a trip to when you plan the next trip,” says Birnbaum, who joined the airline in 2015 and became CIO last July.
One opportunity for improvement was with customers who are frustrated about arriving at the gate after boarding time and unable to board because the doors are shut, while the plane is sitting on the ground. “The situation is not only frustrating to our customers, but also to our employees,” Birnbaum says. “We are in the business of getting people to where they want to go. If we can’t help them do that, it drives us crazy.”
So, Birnbaum and his team built ConnectionSaver, an analytics-driven engine that assesses arriving connections, calculates a customer’s distance from the gate, looks at all other passenger itineraries, where the plane is going, and whether the winds will allow the flight to make up time, and then makes a real-time determination about waiting for the connecting passenger. ConnectionSaver communicates directly with the customer that the agents are holding the plane.
ConnectionSaver is a great example of how a “simple” solution resulted from a tremendous amount of cultural, organizational, and process transformation, so I asked Birnbaum to describe the transformation “chapters” behind this kind of innovation.
Chapter 1: IT trust and credibility
“For years, it was common for technology organizations to have too little credibility to drive transformation,” says Birnbaum. “That was our story, and we worked very diligently to change the narrative.”
Key to changing the narrative was giving senior IT leaders end-to-end business process ownership responsibilities. “We started moving toward a process ownership model several years ago, and since then, we’ve made significant improvements in technology reliability, user satisfaction, and our employees’ trust in the tools,” Birnbaum says. “This is important because every transformation chapter depends on use of the technology. If our employees don’t trust the tools, we will never get to transformation.”
A process could be gate management, buying a ticket, managing baggage, or boarding a plane, each of which runs on multiple systems. “Before we moved from systems to process ownership, people would see that their system is up, so they would assume the problem belonged to someone else,” says Birnbaum. “In that model, no one was looking out for the end user. Now, we have collaborative conversations about accountability for business outcomes, not system performance.”
Chapter 2: Improving the employee experience
Like every company, United Airlines has been working to improve the customer experience for years, but more recently has expanded its “design thinking” energies to tools for employees. To facilitate this expansion, Birnbaum grew the Digital Technology employee user experience team from three people to 60, all acutely focused on integrating the employee experience into the customer experience.
The employee user experience team spends time with gate agents, contact centers, and airplane technicians to identify technology to help employees help customers. “The goal of the employee user experience team is to provide tools that are intuitive enough for the employee to create a great customer experience, which in turn, creates a great employee experience,” says Birnbaum. “It is important for companies to invest in change management, but you need less change management if you give employees tools that they really want to use.”
For example, the user experience team learned that flight attendants felt ill equipped to improve the experience of a customer once the customer is on the plane. If a customer agreed to change seats or check a bag, for example, there was little a flight attendant could do to improve the experience in real-time. “All they had was a book of discount coupons, but the customer had to call a contact center with a code to get the discount,” says Birnbaum. “The reward required five more steps for the customer; it did not feel immediate.”
So, the team developed a tool called “In the Moment Care,” which uses an AI engine to make reward recommendations to the flight attendant who can offer compensation, miles, or discounts in any situation. The customer can see the reward on his or her phone right away, which immediately improves both the customer and employee experience. “We knew the customers would be happier with having their problem solved in real-time, but we were surprised by how much the flight attendants loved the tool,” says Birnbaum. “They said, ‘I get to be the hero. I get to save the day.’”
The employee user experience team then turned its attention to the process of “turning the plane,” which includes every task that happens from the minute a plane lands to when it takes off again. It involves at least 35 employees in a 30-minute window.
Take baggage, for example. Traditionally, during the boarding process, if the overhead bins were starting to fill up at the back of the plane, that flight attendant had no way to communicate to the flight attendant in the front of the plane that it is time to start checking bags. Their only option was to call the captain to call the network center to call the gate to get them to start checking bags.
To create a better communication channel, the employee user experience team worked with the developers to create a new tool, Easy Chat, that puts every employee responsible for a turn activity into one chat room for the length of the turn. “Whether the bins are filling up, or they need more orange juice, or they are waiting for two more customers to come down the ramp, the team can communicate directly to digitally coordinate the turn,” says Birnbaum. “Once the flight is gone, each employee will be connected to another group in another time and place.”
Again, Birnbaum sees that the value of Easy Chat is well beyond the customer experience. “I was just talking to a few flight attendants the other day, who told me that Easy Chat makes them feel like they are a part of a team, rather than a bunch of people with individual roles,” says Birnbaum. “United has a lot of employees, and they don’t work with the same people every day. The new tool allows us them to work as a team and to feel connected to each other.”
Chapter 3: Data at scale
To improve the analytics capabilities of the company, Birnbaum and his team built a hub and spoke model with a central advanced analytics team in IT that collaborates with each operational area to develop the right data models.
“The operating teams live and breathe the analytics — they are the people scheduling the planes — so they are key to unlocking the value of the analytics,” says Birnbaum. “Digital Technology’s job is to collect, structure, and secure the data, and help our operational groups exploit it. We want the data scientists in the operating areas to take the lead on how to make the data valuable at scale.”
For example, United has always worked to understand the cause of a flight delay. Was it a mechanical problem? Did the crew show up late? “The teams would spend hours figuring out whose fault it was, which was a huge distraction from running the operation,” says Birnbaum. To solve this problem, the analytics team, in partnership with the operations team, created a “Root Cause Analyzer” that collects operational data about the flight.
“Now, instead of spending time debating why the flight was delayed, we can quickly see exactly what happened and spend all of our time on process improvement,” says Birnbaum.
With the foundational, employee experience, and data chapters now under way, Birnbaum is thinking about the next chapter: Using technology and analytics to integrate and personalize a customer’s entire travel experience.
“If you have a rough time getting to the airport, but the flight attendant greets you by your name and knows what you ordered, you will still have a good trip,” says Birnbaum. “It is our job to use technology to help our employees deliver that great customer experience.”