Case Study: Letter from United Airlines’ new CEO, Oscar Munoz, to United frequent flyers

September 17, 2015

By Dr. David B. Fogel, Ph.D.

At Effect Technologies, Inc., we specialize in crafting communications to convey desired emotional sentiment. EffectCheck® provides us with a tool to evaluate up to 50,000 words for the likely emotions they evoke on six different emotional scales. EffectCheck does this without regard to the contextual content of the message. Instead, EffectCheck provides an assessment of what’s called the lexical impact of the words and phrases used.

When professional writers create a letter or speech for someone, they know the message they are trying to convey. EffectCheck can help in choosing words so that the recipient of the message may have more likelihood of responding with specific emotions.

A Message from United Airlines’ new CEO

On September 16, 2015, I received an email letter from the new CEO of United Airlines, Oscar Munoz. The letter was mailed presumably to all members of United Airlines’ frequent flyer program.

In reading the letter, it became clear that it would provide a good example of how to modify communications in order to have a more appropriate emotional spectrum. In addition, in my opinion, it provides an opportunity to highlight how to improve letters such as this for their content.

Here’s the text of the letter.

Dear David,

I was recently named the president and CEO of United® and would like to take a few moments of your time to introduce myself to you, our valued customer.

I am excited about the incredible opportunity that the United team has to improve the travel experience essential to the vitality of global business and to the personal lives of millions of people. I want us to be your first choice for every trip you take, and we will put in the work needed to get there.

This goal can be achieved by delivering on three things that I believe are critical to any successful business.

First, we must focus on our customers. Getting you to your destination, on schedule, can make or break your ability to succeed in a work endeavor or to hug a family member at an important moment. If our performance has not met your expectations, I want you to know I'm committed to learning how to better meet your needs and desires.

Second, it's all about teamwork. To get you where you want to go safely and happily requires thousands of us working together with a shared purpose.

Third, this is a company and an industry that demands innovation. We are embracing the changes, and will continue to innovate with the goal of providing our customers better performance, service and products.

Above all, our passion for the safety of our customers and our people will be at the core of everything we do.

My co-workers and I will work each and every day to earn your loyalty by holding true to these principles. We can do better, and will keep listening to our customers to become the top-performing airline. My goal is for you to be as proud to fly United as I am to lead United.

Thank you for flying United.

Oscar Munoz

United Airlines Case Study Munoz Signature

President and CEO, United Airlines

What Type of Letter is This?

In order to write effectively, the objective of the communication has to be clear. The objective often follows from the type of communication.

In this case, the letter is from the new CEO of an airline that consistently ranks very low in customer satisfaction. CNN Money reported that the American Customer Satisfaction Index Travel Report for 2015 has United Airlines 8th place out of 10 major US airlines. With the prior CEO resigning recently, Munoz’s letter appears clearly in the categories of “thank you” and “request” – thanking loyal frequent flyers for their loyalty and requesting patience as United tries to improve.

It follows that in most cases of thanking someone and requesting something from him or her, it’s important to lower feelings of anxiety, hostility, and depression, while at the same time raising feelings of confidence, compassion, and happiness.

Before employing EffectCheck to assess how Munoz’s letter fares in these regards, it’s even more important to ensure that the words on the page make sense. If the content of a letter is not consistent to the overall objective of the letter, the disconnect helps raise anxiety. It also shows evidence of writing that need more polish.

The Letter in Context

There are several key elements of Munoz’s letter that are structured improperly or imply connotations that likely don’t serve the new CEO very well. Here are some obvious items.

1. “First, we must focus on our customers. Getting you to your destination…”

This is a matter of simple subject agreement between two sentences. The first sentence addresses “customers” while the clarifying second sentence addresses “you.” The more correct way to write this is “First, we must focus on you. Getting you to your destination…”

2. “Getting you to your destination, on schedule, can make or break your ability to success in a work endeavor or to hug a family member at an important moment.”

Unfortunately, this sentence doesn’t make sense. If an airline gets a passenger to his or her destination on schedule, that won’t break his or her ability to succeed in work or be with family members. The sentence should have been written “Getting you to your destination on schedule helps ensure your ability to succeed in business or enjoy precious time with your family.”

3. “If our performance has not met your expectations…”

The challenge with a fragment such as this is that it casts a known problem as a mere hypothetical. Frequent flyers of United Airlines have had the most opportunity to learn about the positives and negatives of the airline. As noted earlier, United Airlines ranks 8th out of 10 major US carriers in customer satisfaction. So the hypothetical “if” in this fragment is not acknowledging the current situation. It would have been more appropriate to admit the issues by saying “We know at times our performance hasn’t met your expectations….” Even better would be “We know at times our performance hasn’t met your expectations, nor has it met our own expectations.”

4. “… I want you to know I’m committed to learning how to better meet your needs and desires.”

Oscar Munoz is the new CEO, but he has served on the board of directors of United Continental Holdings since 2010 and was previously on the board of directors for Continental Airlines since 2004. He is an experienced person in the airline industry and as a United frequent flyer, I have to expect that he already knows a great deal about my needs and desires when flying United. The letter puts Munoz in the position of appearing to not be fully aware of what those needs and desires really are, and thus doesn’t serve his considerable expertise very well. It would have been better to write this as “… I want you to know I’m committed to meeting your flying needs and desires, and we welcome your suggestions on how we can improve further.”

5. “My co-workers and I will work each and every day to earn your loyalty by holding true to these principles.”

As the letter was sent to United frequent flyers, the (vast) majority of recipients already have some loyalty to United. Some recipients undoubtedly have considerable loyalty to the airline, even if they may not enjoy everything about its operation. The sentence as written suggests that the customer’s loyalty has to be earned, perhaps from scratch, rather than acknowledging the loyalty that already exists. It would be better to write this as “My co-workers and I will work each and every day to maintain your loyalty by holding true to these principles.”

6. “My co-workers and I will work each and every day to earn your loyalty by holding true to these principles. We can do better, and will keep listening to our customers…”

This again creates “subject disagreement” when moving from “you” (your loyalty) in the first sentence to “our customers” in the second sentence. (The final sentence in this paragraph reverts back to “you,” adding further subject disagreement.) A better choice would be “My co-workers and I will work each and every day to maintain your loyalty by holding true to these principles. We can do better, and we want to hear from you. With your help, United can become…”

With the changes suggested here, the new letter would read (changes in yellow highlight):

Dear David,

I was recently named the president and CEO of United® and would like to take a few moments of your time to introduce myself to you, our valued customer.

I am excited about the incredible opportunity that the United team has to improve the travel experience essential to the vitality of global business and to the personal lives of millions of people. I want us to be your first choice for every trip you take, and we will put in the work needed to get there.

This goal can be achieved by delivering on three things that I believe are critical to any successful business.

First, we must focus on you. Getting you to your destination on schedule helps ensure your ability to succeed in business or enjoy precious time with your family. We know at times our performance hasn’t met your expectations, nor has it met our own expectations. I want you to know I'm committed to meeting your flying needs and desires, and we welcome your suggestions on how we can improve further.”

Second, it's all about teamwork. To get you where you want to go safely and happily requires thousands of us working together with a shared purpose.

Third, this is a company and an industry that demands innovation. We are embracing the changes, and will continue to innovate with the goal of providing our customers better performance, service and products.

Above all, our passion for the safety of our customers and our people will be at the core of everything we do.

My co-workers and I will work each and every day to maintain your loyalty by holding true to these principles. We can do better, and we want to hear from you. With your help, United can become the top-performing airline. My goal is for you to be as proud to fly United as I am to lead United.

Thank you for flying United.

United Airlines Case Study Munoz Signature

Oscar Munoz

President and CEO, United Airlines

There is a seventh issue, in that the letter indicates that there are three things (a more specific word would be better as “things” is akin to “stuff”) that Munoz believes are critical to any successful business, but the three things are (1) focusing on the customer, (2) corporate teamwork, and (3) “this is a company and an industry that demands innovation.” It’s not true, however, that every successful business is a company in an industry that has to innovate. Thus, structurally, the letter is not consistent; however, this issue will be addressed in a different way by addressing the desired emotional content in the next section.

Crafting the Emotion in the Message

Having improved the content of the message, attention can be given to its emotional content and flow. Using EffectCheck, the overall lexical emotional content in the recrafted message is as shown in Figure 1 (based on the category of Request Letter).

United Airlines Case Study Figure 1

Figure 1. EffectCheck indicates that the evoked levels of anxiety, hostility, and depression are typical for a “request letter,” while the evoked levels of confidence and happiness are very high, and compassion is high.

Overall, the letter is very high in evoked confidence and happiness, and high in compassion. These are desirable qualities. The letter is merely typical in terms of evoked anxiety, hostility, and depression, which provides an opportunity for further improvement.

Emotional Revision

First Sentence

In the first sentence, the words “take” and “few” evoke aggression and scarcity, even though they appear appropriate in context. A better way to phrase this would be:

“Recently, I was named the president and CEO of United® and would like to share a moment with you to introduce myself. But first, let me start by saying that you are a valued customer, and we appreciate your loyalty.”

This change would have the added benefit of prespecifying the customer’s loyalty, while refraining from “taking their time.” Nobody likes having their time taken from them. It also deftly employs the word “share,” which evokes compassion, in place of “take.”

Second Paragraph

In the second paragraph, the sentence “I want us to be your first choice for every trip you take, and we will put in the work needed to get there” can benefit from revision. The words “want,” “trip,” “take,” “work,” and “needed” each evoke unwanted emotions in the reader. A better way to phrase this would be:

“My goal is for United to be your first choice every time you choose to fly, and we will strive to be that first choice each and every time.”

By employing “first choice” twice, it help imprint United as the first choice, while focusing more on happiness, confidence, and compassion.

Third Paragraph

The word “critical” (“are critical to any successful business”) evokes anxiety. In addition, there is the problem identified previously regarding the structure of what follows this statement. It would be better to revise this as “We can achieve this goal by delivering on three promises that I am making to you.” This has the added advantage of helping cement a bond with the reader.

Additional Changes and Revised Draft

With some additional word crafting to remove or reduce evoked anxiety, hostility, and depression, a revised draft of the letter appears as follows:

Revised Draft

Dear David,

Recently, I was named the president and CEO of United® and would like to share a moment with you to introduce myself. But first, let me start by saying that you are a valued customer, and we appreciate your loyalty.”

I am excited about the incredible opportunity that the United team has to improve the travel experience essential to the vitality of global business and to the personal lives of millions of people. My goal is for United to be your first choice every time you choose to fly, and we will strive to be that first choice each and every time.”

This goal can be achieved by delivering on three promises that I am making to you.

First, we must focus on you. Getting you to your destination on schedule helps ensure your ability to succeed in business or enjoy precious time with your family. We know at times our performance hasn’t met your expectations, nor has it met our own expectations. I want you to know I'm dedicated to having United meet those expectations at every opportunity, and we welcome your suggestions on how we can improve further.”

Second, it's all about teamwork. To get you where you want to go safely and happily requires thousands of us working together with a shared purpose. United is going to refocus on teamwork and you’ll see it in action every time you board United.

Third, United is in an industry that demands innovation. We are embracing these changes, and we will continue to innovate with the goal of providing you with continually better performance, better service, and better products.

Above all, our passion for the safety of our customers and our people will be at the core of everything we do.

My co-workers and I will strive each and every day to maintain your loyalty by holding true to these principles. We can do better, and we will. We also want to hear from you. With your help, United can become the top-performing airline.

My goal is for you to be as proud to fly United as I am to lead United.

Thank you for flying United.

United Airlines Case Study Munoz Signature

Oscar Munoz

President and CEO, United Airlines

After these revisions, EffectCheck now shows increased evoked compassion, relatively low values of evoked anxiety, hostility, and depression (see Figure 2). Importantly, the contextual and organizational problems in the letter have also been remedied.

United Airlines Case Study Figure 2

Figure 2. After all suggested revisions, EffectCheck indicates that the evoked levels of anxiety, hostility, and depression are low, while the evoked levels of confidence, compassion, and happiness are very high.

Summary

When a new CEO communicates with customers, there’s an opportunity to make a first impression. Those impressions come in part from the context of the communication and the emotions that are evoked. It’s important to give due consideration to each of these aspects of communication.

Letters from the CEO of a major corporation are a reflection not only on the CEO himself or herself, but on the entire corporation. Presenting a letter with structural problems can leave the reader in an unwanted state of anxiety directed toward the writer.

In contrast, giving careful attention to structure and the choice of key words can help guide the reader’s emotions toward desired outcomes. In this case, those outcomes are very high levels of confidence, compassion, and happiness, and low levels of anxiety, hostility, and depression.

As shown in this case study, EffectCheck can provide an invaluable tool in helping craft a message like the one from Oscar Munoz. Munoz’s letter likely went to hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of recipients. That’s a lot of corporate impressions in a single communication, and any communication worth doing is worth doing right.