Do you know who your real brand manager is?

At iMedia Brand Summit yesterday, I was floored by a comment from Jerry Courtney, Group Manager at Target. He said that they don’t think of retail employees at the stores as “clerks”, but as “brand managers”. After all, his point was, the frontline employees have vastly more control over the actual brand perceptions than anyone in the home office.

This point was on my mind when I arrived at the airport today. Long-time readers of this blog know that I have some serious issues with American Airlines. I have nearly 700,000 flown miles with them in the last 7+ years. I live in Dallas, their main hub. I have thought about putting a requirement for me to fly on American for client travel. I can deal with their crazy up charges, and have defended (or perhaps rationalized) their odd policies. I’ve cut them slack for putting more effort into their pointless Facebook app while neglecting to provide updates about whether Hurricane Ike will effect my flights.

When I checked into my flight home today, I wasn’t assigned a seat. I had applied for an upgrade when I checked in online and was told that I didn’t have enough credits. But strangely, I noticed an upgrade notification in my inbox as I rushed to get to the airport. When I checked in, I wasn’t assigned a seat, so I checked with the gate agent. Here is the shortened and slightly paraphrased version of how things played out. It was actually much worse in person.

Me: Hi there! I need to get a seat assignment. I believe that my upgrade request came through.

Jill: (searching) Yes, you did. That’ll be $105.

Me: I’m sorry?

Jill: Your upgrade costs are $105.

Me: Sorry, I’m confused. I’m not sure why the fee.

Jill: Because. You. Requested. An. Upgrade.

Me: Is that fee something new? I’ve not had to pay for upgrades before.

Jill: Yes, you have.

Me: Actually, no, I haven’t.

Jill: Maybe you didn’t know you did.

Me: I’m pretty sure I’d remember paying $105 numerous times.

Jill: Upgrades. Cost. Money. You. Pay. Money. And. You. Get. An. Upgrade.

Me: Ma’am, there’s not need to talk to me like I’m dumb. I’m just confused about the policy. I thought upgrades were based on upgrade segments….

Jill: Yes, and maybe you don’t have any left.

Me: Ah! I’m just trying to understand – if I don’t have any segments, that actually makes sense. I get that I would need to buy more.

Jill: I don’t know if you have any segments or not.

Me: Oh, OK.

Jill: Sir, I don’t know what you’re having a hard time understanding. Upgrades cost money. Each time you fly 500 miles you pay for an upgrade.

Me: Yes, I know. I’ve been a Platinum customers several times and am Gold now…

Jill: You’re not Platinum now, you’re Gold.

Me: …but I’ve never had to pay for an upgrade before.

Jill: Yes, you did.

Me: Fine, can I…

Jill: I just don’t understand what doesn’t make sense. I’m trying to help.

Me: Can I just decline the upgrade?

Jill: You’ll have to move back to coach. What seat were you in?

I know travel is tough these days. I know that paychecks have been slashed for people like Jill. I know that she has to deal with a lot of irritated travelers during each of her shifts. I feel for Jill, I really do. But the reason travel sucks is not the travelers, it’s you Jill. It’s the angry flight attendants that get mad when you ask for a blanket. It’s the busted ass planes. It’s the charges for absolutely everything that isn’t screwed down.

But I also know that Jill doesn’t care about her business, her company, or her industry. I know that she’s about the furthest thing from a brand manager that she can be. It’s obvious in the way she, and her colleagues, treat the customers. Airlines, with the exception of Southwest, have forgotten that the customer is always right. Or at least that the customer is not your mortal enemy.

And as alarmingly rude as Jill from San Diego was, she’s not really to blame. American Airlines is a company that has lost their way, building marketing-based Facebook apps when they should be building customer service facing blogs. Restricting smart employee decision making rather than empowering employees to bend or break silly policies. Wasting money on direct mail marketing campaigns rather than investing in creating better methods for accepting and reacting to feedback.

If Jill was empowered, trained, and encouraged to be a brand manager, she’d be demanding such things too. Unfortunately for all of us, American’s home office doesn’t trust her anymore than they respect their customers.