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 the most seamless customer travel experience possible. “Our goal is to improve the entire travel process from the time you plan a trip to the next trip,” says Birnbaum, who joined the airline in 2015 and became CIO this July spent

One opportunity for improvement was with customers who are frustrated with arriving at the gate after boarding time and unable to board because the doors are closed and the plane is sitting on the ground. “The situation is frustrating not only for our customers, but also for our employees,” says Birnbaum. “We are in the business of taking 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 evaluates incoming connections, calculates the customer’s distance from the gate, looks at all other passenger itineraries, where the plane is going, and whether the winds will permit the flight to be made. time up, and then makes a real-time decision on whether to wait for the connected passenger. ConnectionSaver communicates directly with the customer that the agents are in possession of the plane.

ConnectionSaver is a great example of how a “simple” solution resulted from a huge amount of cultural, organizational and process transformation, so I asked Birnbaum to describe the “chapters” behind this kind of transformation 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’s our story, and we’ve worked very hard to change that.”

Key to turning this around 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’ confidence in the tools,” says Birnbaum. “This is important because every chapter of transformation depends on the use of technology. If our employees don’t trust the tools, we’ll never transform.”

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A process could involve gate management, buying a ticket, managing baggage, or boarding a plane, all running on multiple systems. “Before we moved from systems to process ownership, people would see that their system is up, so they would assume that someone else’s problem is,” says Birnbaum. “In that model, nobody 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 all companies, United Airlines has been working to improve the customer experience for years, but recently its “design thinking” energies have been extended to tools for employees. To facilitate this expansion, Birnbaum grew the Digital Technology employee user experience team from three to 60, all with a keen focus on integrating the employee experience with the customer experience.

The employee user experience team spends time with gate agents, contact centers, and aircraft 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’s important for companies to invest in change management, but you’ll need less change management if you give employees tools they actually want to use.”

For example, the user experience team learned that the flight attendants felt unable to improve the customer experience once the customer is on the plane. If a customer agreed to change seats or check a bag, for example, there is little a flight attendant could do to improve the experience in real time. “They just had a discount coupon book, 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 didn’t feel right away.”

So, the team developed a tool called “In the Moment Care,” which uses an AI engine to make reward recommendations to the flight attendant that can offer compensation, miles or discounts in any situation. The customer can see the reward on his or her phone immediately, which immediately improves the experience for both the customer and the employee. “We knew the customers would be more happy to have their problem solved in real time, but we were surprised that the flight attendants liked the tool,” says Birnbaum. “They said, ‘I’m going to be a hero. I have to save the day.”

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The employee user experience team then turned their attention to the process of “turning the plane,” which includes all tasks that occur from the moment an airplane lands to the moment it takes off again. At least 35 employees are involved in a 30 minute window.

Take luggage, 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 of telling the flight attendant at the front of the plane that it was 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 check bags.

To create a better communication channel, the employee user experience team worked with the developers to create a new tool, Easy Chat, which puts all employees responsible for shift activity into one chat room during the break. “Whether the bins are filling up, or they need more orange juice, or they’re waiting for two more customers to come down the ramp, staff can communicate directly to coordinate the turn digital,” says Birnbaum. “Once the flight is gone, each employee will be connected to another group in another time and place.”

Again, Birnbaum sees the value of Easy Chat as extending far beyond the customer experience. “I was just talking to a couple of flight attendants the other day, who told me that Easy Chat makes them feel like they’re part of a team, rather than a group 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 to work as a team and feel connected.”

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Chapter 3: Data at scale

To improve the company’s analytics capabilities, Birnbaum and his team built a hub and spoke model with a core IT analytics team that collaborates with all areas of operations to develop the right data models.

“The operational teams live and look at the analytics — they’re the people scheduling the planes — so they’re 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 operational areas to be at the forefront of 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 crews would spend hours trying to figure out who was at fault, which really affected the running of 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 discussing why the flight was delayed, we can see exactly what happened and spend all our time on process improvement,” says Birnbaum.

With the foundational, employee experience and data chapters well under way, Birnbaum is thinking about the next chapter: Using technology and analytics to integrate and personalize the entire customer travel experience.

“If you have a hard time getting to the airport, but the flight attendant greets you and knows what you ordered, you’ll still have a good trip,” says Birnbaum. “Our job is to use technology to help our employees deliver that great customer experience.”


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