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Employee experience strategy boosts American Airlines CX

American Airlines' 'people first' culture starts with the employee and is underpinned by technology. It's not alone in making the workforce more inclusive.

The way to a great customer experience begins with a strong employee experience.

In its drive to be what Mark Mitchell called, "not [just] the largest, but the greatest airline," American Airlines Inc. decided it needed to focus on its own people.

"We have a foundation that talks about three sets of goals that will get us there," Mitchell, managing director of HR shared services at American Airlines, said during a customer panel at SAP Sapphire Now 2019. "One is to build that people-centered, people-first culture that will help us to create a world class customer experience."

It's another way of saying the line between the internal and the external customer is disappearing. Or that if, as Mitchell put it, "everything we do is matchable," a company's competitive advantage may just be its employees and its employee experience strategy.

American Airlines was not alone in emphasizing employee experience at Sapphire Now. A couple of threads centered on inclusion, personalization and empathy -- topics of growing interest to HR professionals and the HR technology market.

American's employee experience strategy

Mitchell, one of four SAP customers on the panel, said the 2013 merger of US Airways was the impetus to "create a seamless, unified employee experience that shows our employees it's easy to do business with the company."

He described the company's employee experience strategy as a kind of omnichannel for the employee. Regardless of how an employee contacts HR, the experiences should feel similar and the service should feel personal. The beating heart of its employee experience is data and, unsurprisingly, SAP technologies that bring "that data come to life," according to Mitchell.

He pointed to a couple of examples of this with SAP SuccessFactors Employee Central Service Center, part of SAP's human capital management suite. The product makes it easy for employees to access help desk functionality for HR, and, when integrated with SAP's vender management software Fieldglass, it can give managers a more comprehensive view of the organizational structure for their supervisees.

"Our team members internally, whether they're in France or Germany or Japan or Brazil, they have a different expectation for what American Airlines is like," Mitchell said. "We have to find a way of using technology ... so that we are differentiating what's important to them through the technology so that they can do business with us."

Mitchell said HR managers should view employee engagement and the voice of the employee as a core employee experience activity, not the strategy's bottom line outcome. Mitchell said he and his team strive for employee commitment -- and the force multiplier it can create. 

"Applying that discretionary energy in a positive way toward every business outcome of customer interaction, of productivity, of financial decision-making will lead to the outcome you desire," Mitchell said.

Employee experience has been high on the company's list of priorities for the last few years. Doug Parker, CEO at American Airlines, has talked about the importance -- and difficulty -- of cultural transformation. One known transformation effort was cash bonuses for employees. Based on 2,600 reviews, the company currently rates 3.7 out of 5 stars on Glassdoor, which uses anonymous job reviews from current and former employees to rate company culture and experience.

Inclusion can deter bias

SAP, too, talked about the conscious decision it has made to build a more inclusive workforce. As SAP CEO Bill McDermott put it, "diversity is a fact; inclusion is a choice."

Diversity is a fact; inclusion is a choice.
Bill McDermottCEO, SAP

He highlighted the company's goal to have one in four management positions be filled by women, a goal it achieved in 2017. He also talked about the company's commitment to neurodiversity, specifically with its Autism at Work program.

"We said we're going to have 1% of our workforce dedicated to neurodiversity," McDermott said. "Already we're seeing the payback on this."

The commitment to inclusion is a good one to have, according to Morgan Mercer, CEO and founder of Vantage Point, an enterprise training platform. Her company uses emerging technology such as virtual reality to put employees in uncomfortable situations and help with decision-making.

Inclusive teams can not only help companies build better products, they can also help tamp down on unconscious bias, she said.

"There's always going to be a level of not knowing what you don't know, and building that into products, and letting that inform your decisions," Mercer said. "And that's why it's so important to have products that have diverse teams, that have members of the population you are serving your product to or that your product is going to be sold to."

As algorithms take on more prominence, drawing an eye to unconscious bias is important for companies to maintain trust with their customers. Mercer said one of the biggest fears in emerging technology like AI and machine learning is that it will reinforce a bias.

In an effort to design without bias, Vantage Point's avatars are devoid of identity, a conscious decision meant to give employees a chance to fill in the gaps as they undergo sexual harassment -- and soon unconscious bias and inclusive leadership -- training.

"Technology can amplify inclusion, but you need to make sure you're building inclusion behind the technology," she said.

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How does inclusion fit into your employee experience strategy?
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I’m not sure anyone contributing to this story actually talked to the frontline workforce at American Airlines. The results of the latest employee survey weren’t even published because they were so horrible. Morale is at a point lower than when the company was in bankruptcy, stock prices are at rock bottom, and very few workers trust anything this management team says. Mark Mitchell has no clue what’s going on and this story is a total falsehood of fact.
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