Friday, November 20, 2009

On Keeping Your Mouth Shut

A guy named Dustin Curtis visited the American Airlines website and found it to be a confusing and disharmonious experience. As a designer himself, he couldn't understand why a large company that sells much of its product online would have a website that looks like a cross between a Geocites homepage and a squatter's portal. So he wrote them a letter.

I don't know what Dustin expected to accomplish. Perhaps he thought that his suggestions might be welcomed and that there was a chance he could get some work out of it. I've written a similar letter to a jetshare company whose Internet image was the complete opposite of the high end professionalism the copy professed, and I just wanted to tell them. The way you might tell someone they have a taillight out. People need to know these things and don't always notice them themselves.

A member of the American Airlines design team replied to Dustin. The gist of the reply was, "I agree the site needs work; it's hard to change things in such a large company, but wait patiently and you will see." Dustin was thrilled to hear that someone cared about the site, reversed his opinion of the designers' competence and said so on his blog. An hour after he posted an anonymized version of the reply, the author of the e-mail was fired.

Ostensibly, he was fired for violating the non-disclosure agreement he signed with AA. Billy Sanez, Director of Corporate Communications at American says "We have employees all over the world using social media to communicate. The issue is not posting for us, it is revealing company secrets." What did he reveal? It's certainly no secret that AA is a large company with many departments. Were the spilled beans this list of planned improvements?

Some of our slated efforts include improved navigation; 16 column grid-based layouts; a lighter, more airy visual design; improved user interactions; and an increased transparency to fares and sales policies across the board.

How dare you reveal to our competitors that we plan to improve the user interface! I can't see that that's the real reason, though. The real sin was breaking the facade of unity in the company. That's no secret. It's so unsecret that rather than redesigning the site, AA has created three new booking portals for subdemographics. They're just as cluttered, but they think they can increase their appeal to gays, blacks and women by providing us all with separate drinking fountains. I guess if you're a black lesbian you have your pick. I can be snarky because I don't work for AA.

It doesn't matter how many coworkers you have: you don't tell the customer the landing sucked because your copilot made a lousy landing; you can't tell the charter passenger you're an hour late because management told the dispatcher to schedule two pickups at the same time; and you don't tell them the website sucks because 200 departments are fighting it out for space on the front page. It's tempting to do so, because the quickest way to get the customer off your personal back is to side with them and designate a new, common enemy to blame it all on. But you have to keep ranks.

I worked for a chief pilot once who took this one further. We kept ranks not only within the company but with the regulator, too. He forbade us to use phrases such as "Transport Canada requires you to remain seated with your seatbelt fastened." We weren't to transfer any safety demands to another organization but to make them a personal requirement by us, the flight crew, for your safety. I don't think it was a coincidence that this chief pilot had the best relationship with Transport I've ever seen. He didn't just say that we were all in it together for safety, he meant it.

But we were still free to blame everything on the weather.


Michael5000 said...

You see, this kind of thing that has always made me feel a sense of dread whenever I've even THOUGHT about working for a large corporation. I'm all for professionalism, but I find it pretty creepy when peoples' livelihoods are dependant on their doggedly refusing to acknowledge the obvious.

And even from a business perspective, American's attitude is problematic. Two of the things most likely to win my affection for a company are noticing that employees are allowed to be fully human in the workplace and, if something goes wrong, seeing the company face up to it in a mature manner. Their employee won Curtis' affection and mine, and yours I think -- he shoulda got a raise. Instead, they turn the situation into a great big black eye. Dummies.

[It's hardly surprising that AA is graphic-design challenged, by the way, since their planes have been the wallflowers of the commercial skies for decades.]

dpierce said...

I agree, the site is horrible. At first glance, I'd assume it belonged to a fare scalper, and would move on to another site.

That said, I'm not sure the guy's termination was purely a function of agreeing that his site has deficiencies. With any project to roll-out new customer functionality that I've ever taken part in with a client, major or minor, keeping the lid on upcoming changes is a major concern. Marketing doesn't want the thunder stolen from their new feature launch, the CFO doesn't want the competition to know they're putting money into their web site, the CEO doesn't want to give away any information about what they see as their next big market (even little hints at functionality can give that away), and the partner relations people don't want their business partners mad because "they're working getting the web site to directly give away info that people used to have to get through us".

In other words, companies like to keep tight control on customer facing information. What might seem minor can give a lot away, especially in an industry in tight financial condition.

Right or wrong, the little bit of information the guy leaked out would've generated days of "damage control" conference calls within some of the clients I've worked with. Working with the majors is (at times) more about politics than useful output.

Michael5000 said...

Everything dpierce just said makes total sense -- which yet keeps me feeling good about working in the sub-minors.

Steve at the Pub said...

I have tried to use the American Airlines website and found it so difficult to use that I rearranged my flights to avoid the Airline.

As a side note, their airline lounges are not showpieces either(the Two that I have had experienced, Buenos Aires & Lima)

Syrad said...

I was completely unsurprised by this story when I first heard it. All big corporations are sensitive to talkative employees, but the airline industry as a whole is nearly paranoid about employees divulging any info other than the pre-approved company lines. There are a lot of things I don't like about the way airlines do business, but I kind of understand this one.

For those of us on the flight ops side of the airline, the paranoia starts with the scrutiny by federal authorities, where you don't want to risk any kind of digital record of noncompliance getting onto the internet. Even if the FAA don't spend their days surfing the web looking for cockpit pictures, you can bet some zealous member of the public is going to be horrified at the story/picture/video they found online showing something potentially dangerous and send it to the FAA in the interests of "public safety". That's kind of the problem right there - the general public is way more interested in how airlines do their business than in almost any other industry outside of professional sports. Any person reading your blog can probably name three or four hugely popular sites involving discussions/pictures of airline facilities, planes, and business practices. The airlines are under a lot of public scrutiny and their business is thus incredibly susceptible to public opinion. Airlines routinely settle frivolous lawsuits out of court that they would surely have won just so they wouldn't get a tiny bit of negative publicity. During my tour of duty in airline management I saw first hand how employees innocently being honest on the internet can lead to big headaches for the company. My company never terminated anyone for it, but there were a few stern discussions about the virtues of discretion.

Which brings me back to this blog. My days in management made me very careful with what I put online. Admitting that I'm a female pilot flying for an airline in the US is about as detailed as I like to get on an open site. I've always been impressed by the way that you manage to write such entertaining accounts of your professional work without disclosing information that would identify your employer.

(And yes, American's site is pretty bad.)

A Squared said...

You want a bad website, try a US federal government site. Any agency. comes to mind, but any one will make AA shine by comparison.

Reading the letter, I wasn't terribly surprised it got him fired. He was running his mouth publicly about a bunch of company laundry. Not saying it was right, just not unexpected.

Cirrocumulus said...

Before the good news in his e-mail he says the website has autonomous areas creating their own content without central control, and that it would be better if they had central control. Diverse orgs often have that civil war round their websites. I bet his sacking was instigated by forces loyal to the autonomous warlords.
They probably didn't even read the rest of the e-mail.
Fear of bad publicity? Would you expect to *avoid* bad publicity by sacking an IT geek for telling the truth?

A Squared said...

Cirrocumulus said: "Fear of bad publicity? Would you expect to *avoid* bad publicity by sacking an IT geek for telling the truth?"

Mind you, I'm not defending it, just observing that I don't find it terribly surprising. Maybe I'm too cynical. The bad publicity generated by the firing is a unintended consequence occurring at at least a step removed from the immediate act, putting it well out of the realm of that which would be anticipated by the type of folks making those sort of decisions.

Paul B said...

When I joined my current company, it had about 20 to 25 people in it (even though it was a sub-part of a larger company, it was autonomous).

That company grew over a few years, as a result of takeovers, management buyouts, and external financing.

Finally, 2 years ago, the business was sold: I now work for a small part of a multi-billion dollar world-wide business, with all the baggage that goes with it.

As a technical consultant, if someone wanted to rent my brain and body, I used to just speak to whoever needed the job doing (the sales team would arrange the price) and go and do the job.

We now have a "consultancy booking" team, who insist on a "scope of works" etc etc. I have to fill in timesheets, detailing the 10 minutes I spend on a pre-sales suppport call (luckily, getting coffee and going to the toilet gets covered by a "catch-all" of "housekeeping, email etc" :-) )

Once the recession goes away, I really must do something about moving somewhere a bit smaller... I do NOT enjoy being part of a big company......

(good relevant word verification today: "wingies"...)

Max Trescott said...

Having spent 25 years working for a large corporation, I'm not surprised. There are lots of benefits to working for large companies, but also downsides, including a need to carefully follow rules. Excellent IT people are always in demand. Hopefully he's already found another job. And I bet it's with a smaller company!