08/09/2011 11:56 am ET Updated Oct 09, 2011

United's 30,000 Foot View of Its Customers

Are you out of touch with your customers? It may seem a simple question, but a lot of companies are.

As I sit on my United Airlines flight and I watch the pre-safety video and for the umpteenth time this year, I hear once again CEO Jeff Smizek talking about the progress that United is making in their merger with Continental. He tells me (and the others on board) that United has made strides by repainting the outside hundreds of the planes (with the new updated logo) and co-locating facilities.

My reaction: Really?

As a customer of United (one who has flown over 500,000 miles with them in the last 16 years), I can confidently say that the last freaking thing I care about is the paint on the outside of the plane. I can't see the outside of the plane and even if I did, I wouldn't care if it said "Fred" on the outside. I doubt that any crew members have been confused or hopped on the wrong plane because the plane's outside hadn't been painted. No, painting the aircraft isn't on my wishlist for the airline.

I care, first and foremost, about safety. Then:

-I care that the fares keep going up;
-I care that the crew often seems testy;
-I care that we get charged for checking bags or to redeem frequent flier miles;
-I care that when I check my luggage in at the curb, when I am on the waitlist for an upgrade I have to go check in a second time at a kiosk;
-I care that there's no Wi-Fi service on the plane;
-I care that the INSIDE of the plane (where I spend hours on end) looks like it could use a good scrub down; and
-I care that the red carpet lounge at LaGuardia airport is outside of security

There are probably at least a hundred other things I care about and I can tell you confidently that the paint on the outside of the plane is nowhere near making the list.

So, why as a CEO, would you think that recording a video and interrupting my flight to tell me --- the frequent customer -- that's the progress you are making, is a good idea?

It's better to say nothing than to let me know about you painting the outside of your planes when there are myriad customer issues (and overall business profitability issues) for you to deal with.

As a business owner you have to know what is important to the customer and if you are going to engage them, do so with a message that is relevant. Don't stay up at 30,000 feet in the clouds, come down to earth and understand what your customers really care about.