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The word of the day is “optics” – and how United failed to understand its importance

There is a word I haven’t been able to get out of my head for the past twenty-four hours or so.  It’s not a term I’ve used frequently — however, a choice made by a major company in the past week reveals its critical importance for organizations and individuals wanting to stand out in a cluttered, competitive market.

  • The word is: Optics.

The MacMillan Dictionary writes, “If writers refer to ‘the optics of a situation’ they are talking about the way a situation is perceived by the general public; how an event, course of action, etc. ‘looks’ to others.”

For example, United Airlines CEO Jeff Smisek resigned on Tuesday (along with two other senior officials) “amid a federal investigation into whether the airline had traded favors with the chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey,” according to the New York Times.

As the Times reported, “United’s performance…has lagged rivals’ and angered passengers, as it suffered from delays, a breakdown of its reservation system and other computer problems.”

  • Who did United’s Board then select to become the new CEO?
  • Oscar Munoz — the president and COO of CSX.
  • In other words, the executive that was hired to lead what is probably the worst example of customer service in the airline industry?  His primary experience is that he ran a railroad that hauled only freight.

When I mentioned this to a friend who is a major corporate executive today, he joked, “Well, at least they’ll run on schedule!”  My reply, “Our plane is on time — sorry about treating you like crap and losing your luggage! Why aren’t you flying us more often?”

To be fair, there are glowing reviews of Mr. Munoz’s work as Chief Operating Officer at CSX — but, they all seem to relate to increasing operating income and financial performance.  That probably shouldn’t come as surprise in a company like CSX, or from someone who has never served as a CEO.

However, the optics are just wrong.  

Optician doctor with eye chart and eye glassesUnited, you’re getting your butt kicked by the competition when it comes to customer service.  It just looks wrong that your new airline CEO’s previous company used to specialize in cattle cars.

Why couldn’t the new CEO be a visionary in customer experience?  Why couldn’t you have stepped outside the transportation industry?  A member of your Board is the author of the biography of Steve Jobs — shouldn’t you be seeking who could lead you to distinction in your industry like the subject of his book did for Apple?

What if, for example, United’s new CEO would’ve been Herve Humler…President of Ritz-Carlton? Would there be excitement among United customers about the future of the customer experience at the airline?  I believe so.

Remember when Ford was going to hire a new CEO — and went outside the norm of the automotive industry and selected Boeing’s CEO?  Now, Ford is arguably the best managed automobile company on the planet.  Why couldn’t United exhibit a similar style of thinking?

Instead…their decision has poor optics.

If you want to be distinctive…you MUST consider how your decisions appear to your customers.

Will they view your choices as enhancing your commitment to serve them…or be seen as maintaining the unacceptable status quo?


(PS — Yes, I know that trains stopped transporting cattle several years ago.  So, do you feel better knowing that CSX now moves a lot of coal?  Either way…the critical problem for United and other airlines is that they are infinitely more concerned about planes and cash than passengers and coworkers.  

If I ask you which airline is focused on their customers and colleagues…which one do you think of first?  Probably Southwest.

Which one has been most profitable over the past twenty years? United or Southwest?  Not even close.  We call this…a CLUE! Regrettably, one that United seems to have overlooked.)


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More Stories By Scott McKain

Scott McKain is a business leader, bestselling author, and Hall of Fame professional speaker.
Scott's latest book, "The Collapse of Distinction: Stand Out and Move Up While Your Competition Fails" reached the #1 spot on list of Customer Service Bestsellers! He is the author of two #1 additional business bestsellers ( & 800-CEO-READ): "What Customers REALLY Want" (currently available in trade paperback) and "ALL Business is Show Business."
He is the Co-founder and Principal of The Value Added Institute, a think-tank that examines the role of the customer experience in creating significant advances in the level of client loyalty, and has appeared on multiple occasions as a commentator and analyst on FOX News Channel. His platform presentations have run the gamut from the White House lawn with the President in the audience carried live on CNN and NBC's "Today" a remote outpost near the Amazon...all 50 states, seven Canadian provinces...and from Singapore to Sweden...Mexico to Morocco.
An inductee into the Professional Speakers Hall of Fame, he is also a member of "Speakers Roundtable" -- an elite, invitation-only group of twenty of the world's top business speakers.