Imagine for a moment that you’re the CEO of American Airlines (AA). A customer named
Dustin Curtis comes to the conclusion that your website sucks after
booking a flight on it and finding the process to be a “horrific
displeasure”.

A UX designer by trade, Curtis takes it upon himself to redesign your
website’s homepage and provide some suggestions. All at no cost, of
course. He publishes this as a blog post that begins, “Dear
AmericanAirlines
“. Shortly thereafter, the UX designer receives an
email
from an AA employee who does UX design for your company.

Your employee tells Curtis that the people responsible for AA.com are not incompetent, but that “the culture and processes employed” at AA poses some challenges. He explains:

The group running AA.com consists of at least 200 people spread out amongst many different groups, including, for example, QA, product planning, business analysis, code development, site operations, project planning, and user experience. We have a lot of people touching the site, and a lot more with their own vested interests in how the site presents its content and functionality. Fortunately, much of the public-facing functionality is funneled through UX, so any new features you see on the site should have been vetted through and designed by us before going public.

However, there are large exceptions. For example, our Interactive Marketing group designs and implements fare sales and specials (and doesn’t go through us to do it), and the Publishing group pushes content without much interaction with us… Oh, and don’t forget the AAdvantage team (which for some reason, runs its own little corner of the site) or the international sites (which have a lot of autonomy in how their domains are run)… Anyway, I guess what I’m saying is that AA.com is a huge corporate undertaking with a lot of tentacles that reach into a lot of interests. It’s not small, by any means.

He goes on to detail some of the things he’d like to be able to do and laments the fact that things move slowly at larger organizations. He does reiterate to Curtis, however, that “it’s not all bad” and that “a lot of UX improvements” are in the works.

Curtis posts the response on his blog, leaving out the AA employee’s name, and provides some comments on the “depressing” nature of how things appear to work at AA. Maybe a little bit idealistic but nonetheless constructive.

As the CEO of AA, what do you make of this?

While one might hope that the real CEO of AA would take an interest in Curtis’ feedback and the exchange between Curtis and an AA employee, this didn’t happen. Instead, Curtis last week revealed that the employee was promptly fired after AA searched its Exchange database for the text of the anonymized email he had published and identified the employee who wrote it.

The reason? Apparently the employee violated a non-disclosure agreement by revealing how things work at AA. Which, I suppose, sort of makes sense when you think about it. After all, AA has managed to lose hundreds of millions of dollars this year. Anything that might hint at how that is done is a valuable trade secret.

Sarcasm aside, AA’s buffoonery is really striking. While other airlines (and large enterprises) are trying as best as they can to embrace transparency and customer engagement, AA has apparently decided that it makes more sense to can employees who care enough to engage with customers.

Doing something like this never been a good business strategy in the past, is not a good business approach strategy today and will be an even more costly strategy tomorrow as more and more companies get wise to the undeniable fact that, in most cases, consumers have more choice, control and influence than they have in the past. This does not mean that you have to bend over backwards when you disagree with a consumer, but it does mean that trying to keep employees insulated from them through any means necessary is a backwards way to approach a competitive market.

Not only is it likely to lead to ugly incidents like this but is also a problematic because it damages the company’s connection to the people they serve. And if a company’s employees are firewalled off from the public, the company will eventually lose sight of what the public wants.

Curtis hints that this is already a problem at AA when he discusses some of AA’s recent initiatives:

They launched BlackAtlas.com, a site targeting African Americans; AA Rainbow, a site it calls “the only LGBT dedicated sales team in the industry,” and AA Women, which, for some reason, targets women. People from all these groups have emailed me about these sites, remarking that they are confused, insulted, and feel singled-out. “It feels like AA is perpetuating the 50’s stereotype of a woman,” one woman told me, “and targeting us by promoting vacations for the man of the house to purchase.”

In short, while the firing of an employee for reaching out to somebody who provided some constructive criticism is a despicable act, it’s emblematic of something far worse: a company that is totally disconnected from consumers, and thus completely disconnected from the realities of its market.

Employees who are willing to engage with consumers and who have the motivation to do so are a valuable asset. Hopefully the former AA employee who learned the hard way that his company thought of him as a liability for reaching out has found a new employer that is far wiser.

Photo credit: lrargerich via Flickr.