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American Airlines Meets Mr X - a tragic tale of brand failure


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In May, user interface design blogger Dustin Curtis criticized the design of the American Airlines Web site. An employee responded with dignity and humanity, and was fired for his efforts. This is the whole story in PowerPoint from

Published in: Business, Technology

American Airlines Meets Mr X - a tragic tale of brand failure

  1. FAIL. FAIL. FAIL.<br />American Airlines meets Mr. X (and learns about that InterWeb thingy)<br />A tragic tale of really, gosh-awful dumbness – in which a plucky young blogger and a well-meaning employee meet the collective ignorance of a flailing corporate behemoth.<br />
  2. Special note to American Airlines Employees<br />WELCOME & WARNING: The sad tale in this deck is important for you to read, and contains constructive feedback on your brand and Web site, and a few tips to make it better – at no charge to you or your organization – from professionals who normally charge significant per diems for such advice.<br />But please note: commenting on it may be hazardous to your career. <br />Don’t believe us? Read on!<br />
  3. Prologue: the world has changed<br />American Airlines, you’re probably feeling smug about the “United Breaks Guitars” flap, in which musician Dave Carroll had a guitar broken by United baggage handlers while he watched, then, after a year fighting for money to fix it, he posted a funny video on YouTube, which wasviewed more than 5 Million times, causing United to capitulate – and fast! <br />So congratulations American, you don’t break guitars.<br />But even worse: you mishandle humans.<br />(And you missed the point…)<br /><br />
  4. In which a 22-year old blogger has a bad customer experience with American Airlines.<br />FAIL. FAIL. FAIL.<br />Chapter 1: how it all began<br />
  5. 1: Thebad customer experience.<br />Early in 2009, 22 year-old user interface designer and blogger Dustin Curtis had the “horrific displeasure of booking a flight” on and got really mad. <br />The Web site was (is) a classic “wall-of-noise” mess that throws every possible option on the screen at once. <br />It’s also looking dated, with some truly tacky stuff (check out that snowglobe)!<br />But the worst part is this: <br />The site breaks a basic brand promise by making it hard for human beings to do what they came to do…<br />…which makes humans angry.<br />How angry? Read on.<br />The November 9 version of much different from the one that confounded Mr. Curtis in April)<br />
  6. Chapter 2: anger<br />In which the 22-year old blogger reacts with a touch of bile.<br />FAIL. FAIL. FAIL.<br />
  7. 2: The blogger reacts<br />Dustin Curtis blogged about the experience on May 18, 2009. <br />The post was brief and not heavy on detail. Also, as you can see here, the tone was not terribly diplomatic – either toward American Airlines leadership or the Web design team.<br />But the guy was angry, his point was valid, and more: <br />He moved from criticism to constructive problem solving with the goal of helping youimprove the user experience.<br />And he did this for you for free.<br />Screen caps from<br /><br />
  8. FAIL. FAIL. FAIL.<br />Chapter 3: free design (!)<br />In which the 22-year old blogger spends a few hours offering a possible solution (which is pretty good – even if mildly naïve).<br />
  9. 3: The design pro gives away free time to American Airlines.<br />Here’s what this 22-year-old designer came up with in a few hours. Not perfect, but to my eye, it’s clean, clearly organized, tastefully designed, and most importantly customer focused.<br />So the kid has a good eye and some smart ideas.<br />He also might be a bit naïve to assume that things that seem so small can be changed quickly in a big organization.<br />But then, everything looks small from 30,000 feet… Right American Airlines?<br />The mock-up by Dustin Curtis<br /><br />
  10. 3b: American Airlines, at this point, you had three options:<br />Engage the guy in dialogue - possibly through communications staff, or better yet, through mid-level functional staff who can help him understand your side of the story. (A not-terrible-idea – at least he can’t claim you’re not listening.)<br />Give the guy a small contract to come up with a few more concepts, and a bigger contract if he ends up helping you. (A great idea – nothing shuts up a critic like your name on his resume.)<br />Ignore the criticism and the potential solutions he offers and just hope like heck that he goes away. (A really, really profoundly dumb idea…)<br />Guess which one you picked?<br />
  11. FAIL. FAIL. FAIL.<br />Chapter 4: response<br />In which the corporation inadvertently makes itself seem more human… <br />…for just… a… moment.<br />
  12. 4: A human from American responds<br />A few days later, posted this follow-uppost to his blog.<br />Surprise! A designer at American Airlines responded withan e-mail that does five things:<br />Confirms that his concerns are valid, and in fact shared by many inside AA;<br />Gently reminds him that “simply doing a home page redesign is a piece of cake” – and such thinking is going on at;<br />Explains the challenge – the amount of organizational effort to get the site changed; <br />Asks for patience on behalf of his whole company andlets the blogger know that positive changes are under way; and finally,<br />Succeedsin getting Mr. Curtis to adopt a more respectful tone and target his criticisms.<br />Corporate communicators: Study this letter - a classic example of how communications should be: articulate, humble, and breaking through the party line with a human voice. <br />
  13. 4b: The blogger changes his tune<br />At this point, American Airlines should have been relieved that the blogger has been largely talked down from his soapbox, and more constructive dialogue is taking place.<br />Or at least that’s what a smart company would have done….<br />
  14. FAIL. FAIL. FAIL.<br />Chapter 5: dinosaurs on a plane.<br />In which American Airlines proves that they just totally don’t get it. Like, at all.<br />(Oh, and that pesky blogger comes back with a vengeance.)<br />
  15. 5: This time, it’s personal…<br />The intro to the November 4 post on says it all.<br /><br />
  16. Surprised? Don’t be.<br />Sadly, American Airlines isn’t the last dinosaur. <br />They’re out there, hiding in hierarchical “Lost Valleys” around the world, pretending with their pea-sized brains that they can throttle and control communications the same way they did (or thought they could) in the Jurassic era. <br />But they can’t. The world has changed. <br />
  17. Surprised? Don’t be.<br />And the new masters of the planet have opposable thumbs. And emotions. And big brains. They talk to each other; they form families and tribes.<br />And they don’t bother trying to control the message. <br />Instead, they listen, and build the conversation in ways that are real, helpful, and yes human.<br />Want evidence?<br />You’re reading this aren’t you?<br />
  18. How to be human in five easy steps<br />Don’t pretend to be perfect. You’re lying. We know.<br />Listen (critically) to critics. They usually see you better than you do. Then conscript the helpful critics as team-mates, or call them out if they’re just snipers.<br />Speak Human, not “Corporatese”.<br />Encourage your people to speak Human, and teach them to find the opportunities and boundaries for themselves (and share that with everyone)<br />To clobber your competitors, be more human, more generous, listen harder, and build real human relationships with your customers, influencers, staff, and yes, even the competition. <br />
  19. If you’re with us, and you think 1) Mr. X was unjustly fired, and 2) American Airlines deserves a bit of “United Breaks Guitars” treatment over this, link it, forward it, Tweet about it, blog about it or…<br />What do you think?<br />FAIL. FAIL. FAIL.<br />Please leave your comments at one of the blogs below: <br /><br /><br />