United Airlines threw a new perspective into the debate about where responsibility for customer experience sits when it handed accountability to its General Counsel.
In an unusual move, United has brought customer experience and lawyers together by putting its General Counsel in charge (reported by Gary Leff). The airline has a habit of being in the media for its unharmonious relationships with guitar playing customers, monks and even its own employees. To pull the airline off the bottom of the customer satisfaction tables and into a position where customers rave rather than rant certainly needs drastic action. Customer experience and lawyers under the same wing – a piece of corporate brilliance and a shrewd commercial move or a temporary holding position for an internal hot potato that nobody wants to catch?
True, the role of GCs and their teams is changing as the stakes have become higher. The economic turmoil of recent years coupled with increased regulatory demands has turned up the volume of the legal voice in the Board Room. Their plate is already overflowing with the need to advise and keep the business ethical so should that also include managing customers’ experiences? Like every other part of the company, Legal needs to have input and be kept informed. At a practical level though, legal teams may not be closest to customers on a day-to-day basis and therefore best qualified to determine the nuances of what it should be like to be a customer.
I’ve seen companies who have the same director in charge of IT and Marketing. Operations directors often pick up the customer experience reporting lines, as do those leading the Marketing agendas. Where silos exist and presumably more oversight is seen as a motivator for greater collaboration, many businesses also make one functional director accountable for the customer experience in another unrelated function. The legal, risk and compliance teams already have a big say in how things are run, for sound commercial reasons. At the other extreme though, having such a specialism in charge of customer experience creates a perception that it’s necessary because the experiences are so awful that the legal team are going to be integral to it anyway.
Whose role is it? In this case, only United can answer that. It’s a question we shouldn’t have to ask though. Customer experience – doing the right combination of things for customers and the balance sheet – is what a business is about. It’s a way of thinking and collaborating, it’s not an agenda item on one person’s monthly report back to the Board. But if no one else will pick it up, maybe an empathetic and disciplined legal team are as good as any to run with it.