I have personally not been easy on United which I am a frequent flyer on. I don’t know much about the inner workings of United, I only know what I see as a customer. I know they have said they are working diligently on their brand. I wrote an article called “Being A United Customer Is Scary, Imagine Working There.” This was after a passenger was dragged off a United flight by a third party security company.
When companies misbehave, customers and the community are happy to see the company working on itself and its reputation. Not only is the company working on its culture, but they are working on expanding their offerings.
Customer Centricity: Creating Goods and Services For Your Top Customers
I recently spoke with Mark Krolick, United’s VP of Marketing who said via phone, “what happened [referring to the passenger being dragged off the flight] was terrible. We made mistakes but we were upfront about it. We’re doing work to ensure mistakes won’t happen again. We are definitely going to show the world the true spirit behind United. We’re pushing forward strategically and continually with customer centricity.”
I asked Mark about a day in the life — and since I saw Mark on the old United Airlines welcome video, I was interested to know what his life is like working for an airline. He said “We market in 70 countries around the world. We are focused on the emerging middle class in China. We have regulatory challenges. We have geopolitical challenges. And in the back-ground we are working to improve customer experience. We are trying to give United employees a product they can be proud of.” The airline industry is tough because things change so quickly for these companies. For example will the government decide that customers can no longer use their laptops on flights? That’s a hugely negative customer experience that has nothing to do with United — but if the government were to demand it, United would need to ban laptops.
The airline industry is not one that I would called beloved. But for people who live on airplanes, who fly a lot for work or pleasure, it’s worth the investment to spend more on a flight — assuming they can afford it. Because the premium seats are not cheap. But they are better, much better.
And customer centricity is the act of providing good customer experiences to all customers, but it also means focusing on your top customers and providing superior goods and services for those top customers.
What Is Polaris?
United has launched a new offering called Polaris. United calls Polaris “a reinvention of our international premium cabin travel experience, offering elevated comfort and service from lounge to landing for a restful night’s sleep in the air.” United conducted a year of research to build a premium program other than traditional Business Class and First Class. What they found was customers want to sleep on long flights. United set out to build an experience that was conducive for sleeping. And Polaris was born. The name of the program “Polaris” means the closest star to the north celestial pole, located at the end of the handle of the Little Dipper used for navigation.
Polaris is a steep ticket which offers you a better lounge, premium seats and amenities made with designer brands like Saks Fifth Avenue. These amenities include complimentary pajamas, slippers, skin products, a sleep eye cover, better food, more flexibility around when you eat, and new seats where you have more privacy (no neighbor directly next to you). In locations where two seats are next to each other, there’s a powered privacy divider. They offer an illuminated “do not disturb” sign that lets you signal to your flight attendants. In addition to what I just mentioned you are offered a gel memory foam pillow, two kinds of blankets, and a special mattress you can put over your seat for sleep.
Polaris advertising is everywhere. Their slogan is “From Ahh to ZZZ” clearly promoting the sleep benefits of Polaris. My local airport — SFO — doesn’t feature the Polaris lounge yet. It’s still in construction. For your reference the first Polaris lounge is at Chicago O’Hare Airport and has amenities that aren’t yet at any other airport. The lounge features a spa-like shower, a sit-down meal done by a professional chef, and cocktails curated by famous mixologists. Wine and beer lists are unique.
My Experience With Polaris
I took a Polaris flight from LAX to Melbourne where I was scheduled to give a customer experience speech. The flight to Melbourne was 16 hours. On a flight this long one does appreciate the little things that make the experience better. And in the airline industry the little things ultimately are big things for airlines. How can an airline scale customer experiences that will differentiate them? It’s hard to do.
On my trip I had forgotten my sleep mask which I do not like to sleep without. I was happy to grab the one they gave me in the amenities kit. I used the gel pillow in addition to the Saks Fifth Avenue one they gave me at my seat. On my flight that departed at 10:35pm I chose to postpone the food service. The food was better than traditional airplane food, but it was still airplane food. It’s hard for an airplane to compete with the freshness offered by an actual restaurant. I had the salmon with quinoa and a small kale salad.
On the returning flight I was surprised to see various offerings throughout the flight such as a bloody mary station and a desert cart piled high with ice cream sundaes, a variety of petit dessert options such as warm apple pie, salted caramel bars and a selection of gourmet cheeses. The staff were more service focused than any team I can ever remember on any flight I’ve ever taken. These are all little things that United has done to level-up the customer experience, and they matter. What are the things customers dislike about flying? United set out to fix those.
It’s exciting to see an airline offer a supreme customer experience. Perhaps this will inspire an industry-wide movement to level-up the customer experience. And United will be the rising tide to lift all boats.
[Disclosure: United flew Blake Morgan on Polaris complimentary].
Blake Morgan is a customer experience futurist and keynote speaker. She’s the author of More Is More. Sign up for her weekly customer experience newsletter here.