American Airlines Needs More Than a New Paint Job

American Airlines recently announced a brand makeover, releasing its new logo and designs for its planes. According to CEO Tom Horton:

Our new logo and the refreshed exterior of our planes represent more than a change of symbol, but a symbol of change in our path to modernize and innovate

My take: The company spent millions of dollars on this veneer, but has yet to address its bigger brand issue: Customer experience. The airline can make whatever promises that it wants in its visual identity, but the lasting impressions of its brand are formed by the millions of interactions that customers have with American Airlines every day, whether it’s online, on the phone, at the airport, or in the air. Brands are formed not by the promises we make, but by the promises we keep.

To put American’s customer experience into perspective, it was the next to worst airline in the 2012 Temkin Experience Ratings (only slightly ahead of US Airways, the airline that it is planning to merge with) and rated 187th out of 206 organizations in the ratings. Making matters even worse, it was one of the few companies to show a decline from 2011 to 2012. While we won’t be releasing the 2013 Temkin Experience Ratings for a couple of weeks, I can tell you that American Airlines and US Airways have successfully defended their bottom spots in the airline industry.

Where should American Airlines focus its energy, if not a new logo and some fancy paint on the tail of its planes? Employees. One of the Six Laws of Customer Experience is that unengaged employees don’t create engaged customers. Until American finds a way to get employees on-board, then it will continue to deliver terrible experiences to customers. And there’s no amount of marketing and advertising spending that can make up for a bad experience.

As a vision of what might be possible in the long-term future, take a look at what Southwest Airlines does with employees. With that in mind, Horton and the rest of the American Airlines management team should immediately start focusing on what we call the Five Is of Employee Engagement: Inform, Inspire, Instruct, Involve, and Incent.

As a frequent flyer, I hope that American Airlines figures this out. An upcoming merger with US Airways will hopefully become a catalyst for making signifiant improvements in employee engagement (and ultimately customer experience). If not, this might just be a case of the bad getting bigger.

The bottom line: You can’t paint over poor customer experience

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