Uniting with Customers Online

The Merger Verger recently had a very interesting discussion with the folks at the new United Airlines about the use of their website as a tool for connecting with customers during a merger.  While most of our focus here at The Merger Verger  is on companies much smaller than United, there were some very interesting take-aways from their experience.

  • Following the legal merger in late 2010, the company created three new websites, one for all customers (who might have questions about how the merger would affect them, their travel plans, their frequent flier status and a host of other issues and questions), a second for members of the old United frequent flier program, and a third for members of the old Continental frequent flier program.
  • UnitedHub.com, the broad site, included many elements aimed at smoothing the integration turbulence for the consumer: overview of the company and operational changes, an explanation of the impact on customer loyalty programs, a timeline of the integration, FAQs, videos explaining everything from the CEO’s vision of the new company, to how to navigate the new United website to what to expect from the new fleet of 787 aircraft.  Customers could post questions or comments, traverse an integration timeline and make connections with other customers via social media links.  It is a VERY through tool for making sure that the turbulent process of merging incredibly complicated companies was both transparent and comforting to its customers. (Clicking on the illustration will open a much larger, more readable version.)
  • Hub was set up explicitly to enable customers to ask questions and get answers about the merger.  All of the usual corporate-site stuff – from online reservations options to investor relations information – is absent from the Hub site.  It is just for customers and just about the merger.

Now, smaller companies may not need this level of standalone online communications with their customers but the concepts of individual attention to the worries of the customer – particularly in a consumer-facing company – are very instructive indeed.

  • According to my contact at United, an essential element of the communication strategy was to “give information to customers at the point when they are most clearly paying attention.”  Doing so maximizes the information’s impact and reduces the likelihood that frequent, expensive or frustrating repetition will be required.
  • “Customers pay attention at different times.” The key has been to analyze and understand when they are most likely to pay attention and target information delivery around that timing and through the channels that they are most likely to consume.

IMPORTANT NOTE: YOU CANNOT SATISFY ALL OF THE PEOPLE ALL OF THE TIME. 

On any given TwitterDay you can find complaints about the new United website and the new United reservations system.  Ditto for specialty social media like Flyer Talk and Mile Point.  United told me that they monitor these sites for customer insights and trends.  But they accept – as we all need to – that there will be some degree of dissatisfaction with the changes … always.  The point is to minimize the dissatisfaction, not aspire to eliminate it.

  • Lessons:
    1. Understand what the customer cares about and WHEN he or she wants (or is most likely to focus on) the information.
    2. Use small bites, not trite “sound bites” but digestible packages of thematically consistent and focused information.
    3. Do not use industry jargon when dealing with consumers; they don’t care and will turn off.
    4. Create opportunities for information flows TO you.  This requires what your mother called “listening.”  Bonus: not only does listening provide you with potentially useful information but it makes the customer feel respected and engaged.  Listening is a two-fer.  (Click here for previous posting on the art of listening, from McKinsey & Co.)

I welcome others’ comments on how they have used their websites to affect a smoother integration process.  Thanks.

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