Looking to Boost Service, United Casts a Wide Net

United customer service agent Nancy Kane in action at Chicago's O'Hare. The carrier is looking to hire workers with
United customer service agent Nancy Kane in action at Chicago's O'Hare. The carrier is looking to hire workers with "customer service in their DNA." (By Tim Boyle -- Getty Images)
By Keith L. Alexander
Tuesday, April 4, 2006

With complaints rising, United Airlines is hoping to placate passengers with the Nordstrom treatment.

The airline has partnered with Valtera, a Chicago-based customer service consulting firm, to help it hire 4,000 workers capable of brightening travelers' experience on board. Valtera has worked with famously customer-friendly companies such as Starbucks, Ritz-Carlton and Nordstrom. It has helped United design interview questions based on those used by Nordstrom and Ritz-Carlton.

As Randy Rotondo, United's managing director of human resources puts it, the airline wants employees who have "customer service in their DNA."

And for good reason. Of the nation's 18 largest airlines, United in February had the second-most complaints (after US Airways) filed with the Transportation Department about customer service, flight problems and lost bags. February complaints about the airline increased 27 percent from February last year.

To improve the crop of candidates, United has restructured its hiring format and tapped outside consultants and schools that specialize in finding the right employees.

Rotondo rattled off a list of qualities United is seeking. "We're looking at their work ethic. Their ability to interact with and advocate for customers, those that are highly skilled at resolving problems and those that own problems as their own and look for solutions," he said.

United is expanding the screening process by adding two rounds of interviews. Candidates initially must answer dozens of questions found on the airline's Web site, where applications are also available. Questions include: "Do you believe that bending a company rule is ever OK?" and "Is it always necessary to be as candid as possible when explaining a situation to a customer?"

Rotondo won't say what the correct answers are, but a candidate's reply gives insight into "how an individual will respond for you on behalf of the customers."

If candidates pass the online questionnaire, they then meet with representatives from Valtera. If they get past that stage, the candidates sit down for a third and fourth interview with a United recruiter.

For executive-level jobs, United is canvassing for candidates at top business schools such as the University of Chicago, Northwestern University and the London School of Economics. To find "confident leaders," United is working with an outside firm that specializes in identifying former military officers who are looking to join the corporate workforce.

Before emerging from Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in January, United cut about 26,000 jobs during three years of court-supervised restructuring, leaving the airline with about 80,000 workers.

The airline plans to base a majority of its 2,000 new flight attendants at Washington's Dulles International Airport, United's East Coast hub. The airline said demand for those jobs has been unprecedented, with some 50,000 candidates applying.

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