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There is a lot going on at United Airlines these days, from mounting speculation that it is actively considering a merger with another major U.S. competitor to a tentative approval to start new service to China. It is continuing on a product differentiation strategy that includes new premium offerings on everything from regional jets to transoceanic widebody aircraft. And internally, the carrier named a new vice president of sales for the Americas, a position that covers corporate and travel management company account management.
The appointment of Dave Myrick to that post is the latest in United's ongoing sales transformation, which last spring included a significant reorganization of the carrier's travel agency account management, corporate sales and distribution functions. That reorganization has given some travel management sources the perception of a "revolving door" within United's sales team over the past few years, but it apparently also helped the airline recently secure new corporate business.
According to a United statement, Myrick is a 25-year airline industry veteran who most recently served as the carrier's managing director of sales for the Western U.S. region. He now leads United's North, Central and South America sales organization, essentially replacing Jeff Foland, who was promoted to senior vice president and given worldwide sales responsibilities. Foland replaced Graham Atkinson, who was promoted to executive vice president and named chief customer officer, "a new role in charge of our customer experience," according to a United spokesperson
"Dave Myrick is in charge of the sales force itself, which covers corporate accounts, travel agencies, consolidators, wholesalers and the different entities from a business-to-business standpoint that we promote and sell our products through and to," Foland last week told Management.travel.
In May 2006, United created several newly named departments, including B2B Products & Channels, North America Sales Operations, and Distribution and WHQ Analysis. Foland noted that there are "several analytical groups that do specific things" as part of centralized headquarters functions. The sales operations group, for example, "is a hardcore analytical team that supports our day-to-day operations in the field."
United also has a strategic and global accounts team, and an alliance sales team that report to Foland "and overlay across all geographies," he said.
Those teams helped United score Motorola's global travel account, effective this month. According to an employee message in November from United CEO Glenn Tilton, the long-time American Airlines client switched to United "after more than six months of intense work and negotiation." It now uses the carrier for flights from its Chicago headquarters to cities around the United States and "17 key business markets in Asia, Europe and South America."
"Our proposal to Motorola was a true companywide effort, reflecting the work of departments ranging from revenue management and sales to marketing and corporate social investment, and many more in between," Tilton continued.
In that employee message, United executives also cited "tailored travel program support" including its frequent flyer program and "a higher level of recognition and personalized service for our best customers ... a one-stop experience in our call centers to take care of changes in their travel plans, for example. The assurance that when irregular operations occur, as all airlines face, United will help ensure their needs are given priority consideration."
"Throughout the process, we recognized and must continue to recognize that major corporations such as Motorola do not change air carriers frequently or easily," Foland told employees.
United has "had some big client wins in the market lately," said Bob Brindley, vice president of the Americas for Advito, a unit of BCD Travel. "They have been very aggressive and won business. We have some clients that are frustrated at what they perceive as changes in ongoing account management at United, but you can say that about any carrier. It is no more so than you would see with any airline. "
In addition to efforts to improve inflight products and account management, United for nearly two years has offered clients a tiered discount structure, which includes token discounts on even the lowest fare buckets.
"The tiers are based on classes of services and they are offering a 2 percent discount for all of their fares that they historically were not discounting," explained Dale Eastlund, air solutions project leader within the Carlson Wagonlit Travel Solutions Group. "That has forced American Airlines to offer something very similar now."
Meanwhile, other than a replacement for Myrick in the Western U.S. sales division, the United sales organization is now "relatively stable," Foland said. "We feel we are maturing as an organization. We are bringing science and structure to a system that needed more science and structure, and discipline and rigor with respect to how we analyze the market, the products we develop, the way we engage our customers and the way we allocate our efforts to the highest value customers and customer segments."
Meanwhile, United named Barbara Higgins as vice president of customer experience. Most recently vice president of operations at Disney, Higgins is tasked with "leading the company's initiative to differentiate United from its U.S. competitors." She is scheduled to assume those duties next week, reporting to Atkinson.
"Just like Disney, Ritz-Carlton and other well-known service brands, we want our customers to come back to United because of the experience they receive not only from our products, but from the quality of the interactions with our people," Atkinson said in a message to employees. "We see countless examples of the kind of service that brings people back, but we also hear from customers that we are not as consistent with our service as they would like us to be."
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