Branding goes beyond ads: Customer service counts, too

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Donald J. Carty, Chairman-President-CEO, American Airlines:

Dear Mr. Carty,

Every English lit major knows Hell has nine circles: limbo, lustful, gluttonous, prodigal, wrathful, heretic, violent, O'Hare and LaGuardia. Thank God your hub is Dallas-Fort Worth, eh? But don't gloat. Because your brand right now is poised somewhere between the sixth and seventh rings, and unfortunately it seems to have been released from its holding pattern.

Far be it for me to lecture the chairman-CEO of the world's second largest airline about branding. But the last time I flew the largest (United), they kept me locked on the plane, on the tarmac, for about six hours, before finally delivering me and the other prisoners to Chicago at 3 a.m. So I figure they're beyond hope. But American-for you guys, I thought there was a chance.

Until I started getting the letters. You know the letters. You must, because they came from the "Executive Office," where I assume you work. The first one, on Oct. 24, was signed by your colleague William R. Hodges. (That may be a pseudonym; he didn't provide a title.) In it, Mr. Hodges apologized for the unplanned layover in Vancouver on Oct. 18, when, about to board flight 172 to New York, we passengers were told that we'd be delayed because one of your crew members was denied access to the United States by U.S. immigration officials. Many of us crowded around the departure gate wondering aloud to your personnel how it was possible that American was unaware of its flight crew's immigration status. They shrugged. For five hours. Maybe six.

But Mr. Hodges (he is real; his title is "executive office manager"; I know, because I called the "Executive Office" and another "executive office manager" named Tanya Hendricks told me so) made it all right when, a week later, he sent the letter. In it, he explained that "as a valued AAdvantage member, you know that good customer service sets us apart from other airlines." Actually I hadn't known that. And Mr. Hodges' offer of 10,000 "customer service bonus miles" didn't give me the knowledge.

I guess Mr. Hodges was upset by my response-that "10,000 AAdvantage miles do not make up for your shoddiness or our aggravation." Because he passed my letter on to Mary F. Pittman (another of your large set of "executive office managers"). She apparently thought I was trying to cadge more AAdvantage miles. "I am sorry," she wrote, "that you are disappointed in the amount of compensation we offered." Actually, I wasn't. I was disappointed in the lack of an explanation for why American doesn't check on the immigration status of its flight crews.

But no matter. Ms. Pittman (you must know her; she works with you in the "Executive Office") wasn't going to be fooled into offering more miles. No, sir. She offered to "use your constructive criticism" to "reduce as much inconvenience and customer discomfort as we can during long delays." I noticed she didn't offer to reduce the long delays. By, maybe, checking on the immigration status of your flight crews.

Anyway, you must have known I didn't need the miles. Because at roughly the same time, your intrepid executives sent me a letter telling me my Admiral's Club membership was up for renewal, at a cost of 45,000 AAdvantage miles, or 75,000 if I included my wife. Preferring to shepherd my miles (for a future trip to Vancouver, perhaps), I opted to pay for the two of us by credit card. Then I noticed the fine print under the two-for-two offer: "Requires marriage certificate or affidavit of spousal equivalency form." Call me daring, but I think I'll take my chances with your house dick.

Oh, I guess I've drifted off-topic, Mr. Carty. This was supposed to be about branding. Well, my point is pretty simple-unsurprisingly, because I am a pretty simple person with simple needs and simple wants. And, simply put, all us simple folk want is real explanations of real problems from real people with real titles at real offices. You may not consider that relevant to branding, but every word-on a letter, an advertisement, a billboard, or uttered by a gate rep-communicates your brand. It also helps if you treat passengers like adults-most of whom, in my private surveys, generally prefer not to send their affidavits of spousal equivalency to airlines, no matter how friendly their skies are. Oops! That's United's slogan. Sorry. What was yours, again?

Regards, R2.

Copyright December 2000, Crain Communications Inc.

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