The Art of Storytelling

Eash Sundaram, CIO of JetBlue, on transaction-free air travel

storytelling

How would you define your role as CIO of JetBlue?

Eash Jet Blue

As CIO of JetBlue, I am more like the Chief Integration Officer. My team and I need to come to the table with a broad set of functional knowledge including commercial, regulatory and compliance. We are the connecting tissue, which is a very different role for IT than five years ago.   Back then, the CIO would focus on software implementations, data centers, and security.  IT still has to manage those functions, but the real question the CIO should be asking now is: How do we drive business value?

During my interview with JetBlue, the Chief People Officer asked me, “If you get this job, what will you do differently?”  My answer was “Why check-in?”  Many customers today are still showing up at the airport, going up to the counter, and receiving a paper boarding pass. In this modern age, when we have digital technologies, why do we need to check- in? Why do we need so many transactions when we travel?

As CIO, I need to be thinking, “If a process doesn’t add value, then we need to eliminate the process. If the process does add value, then we need to automate it and eliminate as many steps as we can.” A few months ago, we piloted our first auto check-in with a select group of customers. We told them, “You don’t need to check-in with JetBlue anymore. We’ll send your boarding pass to you so you don’t have to think about it.” Our goal is to limit transactions during the travel experience; we want to make travel seamless. We think we’ll soon get to a point where we you won’t have an individual boarding pass for each trip. We think your phone will become a permanent boarding pass.”

We believe that the customer experience should be transitional, not transactional. Most customers want to experience services without touching a thing, whether they are at a movie theatre, a bank, or an airport. When it comes to self-service, we cannot pass our integration problems on to the customer – but that’s how many companies look at self-service. Why do we even need a kiosk? At JetBlue, I believe that we will not have them in five years. We are planning to test many of these concepts in our Boston terminal.

What skills do you need to be able to drive this kind of change?

Some airline industry CIOs are limited by the fact that they grew up in airlines and are doing things the way they’ve been doing them for years. Every time a vendor tells me, “We do this for this airline,” or “We do this for that airline,” I think, “but those companies have gone through bankruptcies, so to some degree, whatever you’re doing for them hasn’t worked.”

At JetBlue, we look to Apple and other retail businesses as the companies we want to model our brand and performance against. As CIO, I need to bring in knowledge from industries that excel in customer service and in crewmember empowerment and efficiencies.

We also embrace the talent that comes from other industries. In the airline industry, people expect the highest level of customer service level at the lowest cost. We can only meet that expectation if we think differently about traditional processes, since every step in a process adds cost. As CIO, I need visibility outside the airline industry, and I need to bring that knowledge and that talent to JetBlue.

I also have to play a role in educating my leadership team when it comes to major process changes, like auto check-in. I have to show them that auto check-in is not just Eash’s dream; it is our customers’ and our crewmembers’ dream. I have to be able to sell the story. What does auto-check in do? It frees up the crewmember who is standing in front of the counter and they can now focus on delivering customer service, not managing a transaction.  When telling the story of a new investment or program, CIOs have to remember that it’s people first, then process and then technology. We have to engage people up front and explain what’s in it for them. When you propose large scale transformations, people tend to focus on budgets and milestones, not what’s in it for the customer.

Can you give an example of storytelling?

We are aggressively pursuing a mobile strategy for pilots. One way to introduce this kind of major IT program is to say, “We’re going to give tablets to everyone.”  Then they respond, “Why are we getting these tablets? Are you going to start tracking us? Is this about keeping track of our hours on the job?” So, suddenly in IT, you are on the defensive: “No, we’re not going to track you.” Another approach is to tell the right story to these pilots, who all travel for a living. “We want you to be connected when you’re in the plane. Think of this device as a connection to your office, but also to your family. Why carry two devices?” This way, you’re reminding them of the importance of community and family; you’re not pitching a device.

 Too often, IT will say, “Here is this device and here are all of these apps. You need to use this device to do all of these transactions from now on.” And the pilots are thinking. “Oh great, now I have to fill out these forms; that’s just one more thing to do in my life.” The better story is, “If you want to sit in the lounge and check your bank statements, you can.  If you want a video connection with your family, you can have it.”

As CIO of JetBlue, I need to think of the benefits of having a device in the cockpit that allows pilots to do their jobs better and be happier crewmembers, then I need to make that part of the story. Most airlines have had major challenges deploying iPads in the flight deck; we’ve had only excitement. These other airlines think of the legalities, risk, complexity and expense, but we think more broadly about how these technologies empower our crewmembers’ quality of life.

About Eash Sundaram and JetBlue

Sundaram joined JetBlue in 2012 as CIO. Prior to that, Sundaram served as Chief Information Officer at Pall Corporation, a global business in the diverse field of filtration, separations and purification. Prior to that, he held several Information Technology leadership positions in the Healthcare and Supply Chain Management industries. He holds a Master of Science Degree in Transportation Management from the State University of New York - Maritime College.

JetBlue is New York's Hometown Airline(TM) with other focus cities in Boston, Fort Lauderdale, Los Angeles, and Orlando. Known for its award-winning service and free TV as much as for its low fares, JetBlue offers the most legroom in coach of any U.S. airline as well as super-spacious Even More Space seats. JetBlue is also America's first and only airline to offer its own Customer Bill of Rights, with meaningful and specific compensation for customers inconvenienced by service disruptions within JetBlue's control.

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