Northwest Airlines Pushes For New Image

Maria Palmer, a 10-year Northwest Airlines employee who helps passengers find lost luggage, was intrigued when she heard that management was developing a customer service training program for its employees.

"We all love our jobs. It's just that we've been beaten down a little bit," Palmer said, citing the double-digit pay cuts and stress that employees endured during the airline's 20-month bankruptcy.

The strain from the bankruptcy was only the latest chapter for a company that has developed an industry-wide reputation for contentious labor relations.

Now Northwest is beginning a far-reaching training program for front-line workers that it hopes will be the first step toward revamping its company culture and winning itself a better image with customers.

Roy Bostock, Northwest's new board chairman, said he wants to create a better environment for Northwest's employees and customers and develop more sophisticated techniques for measuring customer experiences.

"I want these folks to know that this board of directors cares about them and is hell-bent on changing this culture and changing the attitudes in this company to make it more productive for everyone," Bostock said in a late August interview.

Palmer, a customer service agent, volunteered to be part of the initial testing for the new training program, called "the Northwest Experience."

She said executives demonstrated respect for employees during the sessions, and workers from different departments talked about how they could do a better job of communicating and cooperating with each other instead of trying to assign blame for service problems. "I think this will bring a sense of pride back," she said.

In customer service surveys, Northwest has often garnered mixed reviews from travelers, getting high ratings for safety and efficiency, and lower marks on subjective service measures.

Northwest had the best operational statistics among the big network airlines in 2006, according to the Airline Quality Ratings study. For the first half of 2007, it had the fourth-best record among 20 carriers for baggage handling.

But a pilot shortage this summer caused Northwest to cancel thousands of flights, forcing many passengers to abruptly change their travel plans. And in a J.D. Power and Associates report that was released in June, Northwest ranked last among big network airlines for customer satisfaction. The carrier got low marks for service by flight crews and in-flight amenities.

Crystal Knotek, Northwest's senior vice president of customer service and airport operations, said management believes that a better customer experience starts with a better work experience at Northwest.

"We want to make sure that we are treating our employees so they feel valued, because then they will treat the customers better and we will meet our goals," she said.

Kevin Griffin, president of the Northwest branch of the Association of Flight Attendants, said management faces some hurdles in trying to persuade workers that it wants a new atmosphere within the airline. "There's a lack of trust out there," he said. Many attendants felt forced to ratify pay cuts and work rule changes just before Northwest left bankruptcy.

While Griffin is "undecided" about the likely impact of the new training program, he said that attendants need "proper staffing and tools" to do their jobs well.

Beginning next month, the first group among 14,000 Northwest employees will take part in a day-and-a-half seminar designed to give workers a forum, so they can share ideas with their peers and tell executives what changes would help them improve their customer service.

Employees who have direct contact with passengers -- customer service agents, flight attendants, reservation agents and WorldClub employees -- will be required to take part in the sessions and be paid for their time.

Julie Hagen Showers, who served as a management negotiator during the bankruptcy, acknowledges that employees have "been through a lot and there's a little bit of skepticism" about the training program from some workers. But Showers, senior vice president of inflight services, said she has seen a desire on the part of many employees to "focus on the future" instead of reliving the past.

Knotek, who began her Northwest career 22 years ago as a reservations agent, said there is a strong link between an employee's job satisfaction and the worker's ability to deliver excellent customer service.

"They want to feel valued. Everybody does," Knotek said. Beyond wages and benefits, she said, workers want "a sense of community and family, and (that) they work for a purpose."

E-mail Liz Fedor at lfedor@startribune.com

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.shns.com.)


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