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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.

Patricio Robles

Published 9 November, 2009 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

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Comments (18)

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Stu @ Web design North London

Wow, seems to be that firing the employee was a bit of a knee jerk reaction. While they did basically break the rules, that fact that they were discussing the problem in detail with the customer should counter act it. Hopefully the employee can offer their services to a more worthy company.

over 6 years ago

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Rich DiGirolamo

They're American Airlines;  Doing What They Do BestIgnoring the customer and solving the problem by creating another problem. Way to go AA!

So maybe the employee broke a disclosure agreement? Or maybe the Communications Department got annoyed that someone else did their job? Or maybe the this was a rogue employee before this incident; and AA was just looking for one more documented piece of rogueness. Or maybe.........Well you get the point. Who really knows what happened here?

But I couldn't agree with you more..........when an employee reaches out to a customer to keep that customer informed and engaged, it is a good thing -A VERY GOOD THING.  Too bad so many rules and policies tend to be in place - most that employees aren't aware of or unintentionally forget - that lead to decisions that disengage everyone; employees and customers.

But it does make me happy that when I was talking with two Starbucks employees recently and sharing my thoughts on my unhapiness with their nasty Pike Place blend, that it was a face-to-face conversation that could not be traced. Because I would hate to think that agreeing with me (which they did) and not towing the company line would have resulted in termination: http://tinyurl.com/yd8c8lh

over 6 years ago

Adam Tudor

Adam Tudor, Senior Digital Marketing Manager at The Black Hole

I remember reading this AA review a couple of months ago and thinking the guy was really quite nice for responding in such a clear way, and it was nice to hear that they were trying to make changes to the current design.

I can understand it's in breach of contract, but companies really need to get up to speed with customer engagement - especially with the rise of Twitter, employees are able to have an even clearer voice to their customers and to the world, as we've' seen with the Dixons staff FB episode recently.

Every company needs to make sure it has a clear customer communications policy, which also covers off communications through social networking channels.

over 6 years ago

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Nigel Cooper

Priceless, absolutely priceless. Given Ryan Air's reputation for how it conducts online engagement, you might think other airlines would be more careful and actually appreciate their staff positively responding to complaints online. But firing someone who's engaging with a disgrunted customer and explaining the issues large companies face makes much more dense. I mean sense.

over 6 years ago

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Jon Clements

While I agree that reaching out to the customer in the way this AA employee did is an approach that fits with the new world of customer-focused communications, there is also an old, but still very real, world to contend with. And that cost the AA person his/her job.

The employee's comments, whatever way you look at it, make AA look incompetent or, at best, desperately disorganised. That might well be true, and Dustin Curtis' free web consultancy should be taken seriously.

But it feels like a discussion that should have taken place offline before it becomes a blog post that is out of the company's hands and, potentially reveals, more than the company - particularly senior management - could ever be comfortable with. It's one thing to acknowledge customer dissatisfaction in an open forum online and pledge to do something about it, but quite another to give a "warts and fly on the wall" view of what goes on behind closed doors.

An internal discussion between employee and management about how to respond to Curtis' post would have given top brass the feeling that some semblance of control is being maintained (I know, I know, it's about devolving control but you need BUY IN from the boardroom first!) and it could've been a great story about how AA promises to listen to a well-informed customer, etc. Instead, the story becomes about the dismissal and how AA has failed at customer engagement.

Customer focused interaction is the way forward; but it still needs effective internal communication and co-operation within the company to reduce the risk of instances such as this.

over 6 years ago

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Bob Gilbreath

What responsibility does the blogger, Dustin Curtis, have in getting this employee fired?  Sure, he removed the guy's name, but I wonder if he has second thoughts about publishing the AA response.  It helps Curtis get traffic and make a nice blog post, but it would have been nice to ask the person if it would be OK to publish the comments.  It's not a legal issue, but I think a moral one.

over 6 years ago

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Andre Stegplatten

Given Ryan Air's reputation for how it conducts online engagement, you might think other airlines would be more careful and actually appreciate their staff positively responding to complaints online.

over 6 years ago

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Alistair

This is a great read, you couldnt make this up, surely the customer should be at the heart of everything you do, clearly AA have 'boobed' here big time, in the UK this would be called an own goal.....

And it did give me quite a chuckle,

Thank you

over 6 years ago

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Simon

I think it's a shame that an enthusiastic person who may well have had his companies best interests at heart was fired rather than "educated" about the serious mistake that he most definitely made. All organisations need to project a professional high quality image. This is something they make great efforts to do to through their marketing and PR teams. The absolute last thing they need is one of their "non PR aware" staff members naively pointing out his perception of the reality behind the image. This wasn't customer engagement ! This was the employee justifying and explaining the poor quality of the website for which he was partly responsible. The fact that many of the commenters on this post don't seem to understand what this guy did wrong highlights the dangers to both companies and their employees.

over 6 years ago

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Elise

So, no one commenting feels that a corporation should have a say in which employees engage with its customers, not to mention what information is shared (and how)? I would not have fired this young man, but he most certainly overstepped his position. Some employees are suited for, skilled in, TRAINED in customer service and PR and some are not. If you were CEO, would you want Jimmy, the 18 year old mail room intern/sk8er boi publicly speaking on behalf your company? And are you comfortable with each employee deciding for him/herself if he/she is qualified and entitled to do so?

over 6 years ago

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Elise

And clearly, as the commenter before me pointed out, he was not engaging, he was merely justifying.

over 6 years ago

Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles, Tech Reporter at Econsultancy

Elise,

You make a valid point, but in this case the employee reached out privately to address criticisms that related to the area of the company in which he worked. His downfall was that his email was posted to a blog and AA was able to track him down.

Make of that what you will but let's be honest about one thing: a customer service rep or PR flack would not have been able to tell the customer anything of substance. What does a customer service rep know about UX? And would a PR flack tell the customer anything other than a bunch of candy-coated nonsense about the company's website?

At the end of the day, I think the reality is that companies can't control 100% what employees do. They can choose to live with that and embrace the employees who are willing to go out there and interact with customers in an authentic manner or they can replace them with employees who have no desire to discuss their jobs. Which is better?

over 6 years ago

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Mark J Smith

To American Airlines;

Because you saw fit to deny the truth and fire an employee who was trying to improve things, we will see fit to never fly American Airlines again. And we fly weekly. In addition, our company will no longer book any flights on American Airlines for our employees. If you wake up and rehire the employee with back pay then we might reconsider but I'm not optimistic on this. I just hope other companies will do the same and boycott AA.

over 6 years ago

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Sean Goulart

Wait until Twitter gets ahold of this...Dustin will be the new head of UX! 

over 6 years ago

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Dennis Hollingworth @ Red Creative Moves

! Is it ignore a basic of marketing - -dismiss and alienate your customers?!!

over 6 years ago

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IGBOLFN22

AA has no clue, I am sick and tired of thier poor business practices and strnghold on thier customers.

I am taking my issues to the State's Attourney General office in Texas.  I was only waiting for the recent elections to pass.

over 5 years ago

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hardwood doors

its always the first impulse of big firms, get rid of the little people first - they're unimportant - even though they're the ones' doing the work!!!

over 5 years ago

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