A couple of days after United Airlines forcibly removed a passenger on a flight departing from Chicago, I found myself preparing to board a United flight from Phoenix to Newark.
With two scandals under their belt, including girls who were banned from a flight due to wearing leggings, one would think that the gate agents would be friendlier, the flight attendants a little more accommodating, and an overall attempt to massage a damaged impression of the airline; nothing could be further from the truth.
Instead it was business as usual flying the unfriendly skies with appealingly sour attitudes and a ‘we are doing you the favor,’ approach to customer care.
United CEO, Oscar Munoz’s handling of the April 09th incident where David Dao was dragged kicking and screaming from the flight, which was videotaped and posted on social media, was initially luke warm as he apologized for having to ‘re-accommodate…customers.’
It wasn’t until the next day that he issued a deeper apology promising to review company practices and investigate the incident.
Between the leggings, the passenger being forcibly removed from the plane, and another United passenger, Richard Bell, being stung by a scorpion on a flight from Houston to Calgary, United has had a tough go and not handled business in a customer friendly way.
United is not the first, and will not be the last company, to go through bad PR.
McDonalds came back from an incident many years ago where they were sued for having coffee that was too hot. United is also not the worst of the worst when it comes to customer satisfaction.
Jet Blue™ with its low prices, friendly staff, and upgraded cabins is number one, while Spirit™ ranks last.
You can see the full results of the American Customer Service Satisfaction Index here https://www.theacsi.org/industries/travel/airline .
There are many things we can learn from United’s practices and sadly, as someone who has 1k status with United, it is my hope that they learn these lessons quickly.
On their website, they say that they ‘want to be the airline customers want to fly.’ Right now, with celebrities lashing out at United and people rethinking their loyalty, my advice to United is that it is time to up their customer service game.
They need more than cute llama videos and my hope is that they are bringing in consultants to help them re-brand, clean things up, and focus on appealing to customers, like myself, as opposed to cowing to shareholders, which I am not.
1. Do the Math
In 2016, United Airlines bumped 3765 passengers off of their flights which accounted for almost 10% of total removals for US airlines and had approximately 63,000 voluntarily give up their seats out of 434,000 passengers.
Overselling is a common practice by airlines however during this United backlash, I would suggest running the calculations and avoid overselling on the most commonly oversold flights.
Jet Blue, as an example, rarely oversells its flights whereas Delta is number one followed by United at number two.
In the world of business, if you have more customers than you can handle then you either require more staff, or reduce your number of customers, or find a way to accommodate more people.
I have observed small businesses actually grow slower than their client base. They are excited about sales however have no clue how to handle their clients.
People are fed up with overseas customer service and automated response call-ins that lead to minutes, if not hours, of wasted time.
People want real people and they want the human touch. For small businesses, knowing when the right time is to hire a call center, is key.
Here is a list of recently reviewed call centers. Prices are affordable and if lead follow-up is not your thing, you can purchase blocks of time.
2. Align Your Team Around Your Core Values And Release Anyone Who Doesn’t Embrace Them
Zappos™ one of my favorite models of a company who has gotten this right, rallies their team around their core values. Any team members who doesn’t align, is let go. People are hired based on their ability to buy-into these standards and this is what CEO, Tony Hseih, has based his company philosophy, and success on.
These are the core values of Zappos™:
* Deliver WOW Through Service
* Embrace and Drive Change
* Create Fun and A Little Weirdness
* Be Adventurous, Creative, and Open-Minded
* Pursue Growth and Learning
* Build Open and Honest Relationships With Communication
* Build a Positive Team and Family Spirit
* Do More With Less
* Be Passionate and Determined
* Be Humble
Urban myth has it that people desperately want to work at Zappos™. As a customer, I will endorse the fact that their service is always first-rate. Clearly this company is getting this right.
Having great values is one thing however if these values, or commitments, are not being adhered to then challenges will arise.
Here is United’s Customer Commitment:
‘We are committed to providing a level of service to our customers that makes us a leader in the airline industry. We understand that to do this we need to have a product we are proud of and employees who like coming to work every day. Our goal is to make every flight a positive experience for our customers. Our United Customer Commitment explains our specific service commitments so that we can continue a high level of performance and improve wherever possible. The commitment explains our policies in a clear, consistent and understandable fashion. We have detailed training programs and system enhancements to support our employees in meeting these commitments, and we measure how well we meet them.’
Mr. Munoz – my question to you is this – have you read this recently? Are you working with your employees to live into this commitment? Are you yourself living into this commitment yourself?
When a company, and their employees, forget what they are supposed to stand for, the entire organization breaks down. One company, I read about, was so passionate about this that they paid anyone who didn’t want to live into the values, $2000, and two week’s pay. One person left and their profits soared.
Regardless of the type of business you are in, it is imperative that you create core values that you can rally behind and use these as a litmus test to discern whether, or not, you are on the right track.
3. If You Mess Up – Make It Right Fast
Many felt that United did not make it right to the passengers on David Dao’s flight and specifically not to David Dao.
In business, the best part is that we are human; the worst part is that we are human. As human beings, we make mistakes. Fatigue, overwhelm, hormones – the list is endless – sometimes we get it wrong and when we do, we are obligated to make it right.
After his initial reaction, Mr. Munoz came back and gave a PR crafted, well positioned statement however it was rather late. Many felt that due to its timing, there was a degree of insincerity, regardless of intent. I have no doubt that there was a degree of shock upon initially finding out about David Dao however a timely, sincere apology, was necessary.
His initial apology lacked any degree of ownership and dedication to the customers of United.
In business, if we mess up, it is essential to be sincere, honest, and commit to rectification right away. If we do not have all of the answers, it is best to let people know that we are looking into the incident and will make a statement as we have more information.
Furthermore, this wasn’t just an affront to the passengers of one flight, it was also a sting to all United Customers.
My suggestion would have been to email the apology and the make-it-right statement to anyone who had flown United that week. Secondly, I would also suggest that simply giving people on that flight some form of credit was not enough. One year of free baggage, lounge passes, and other amenities could go a long way.
As a frequent United flyer, who has been loyal for years, I am left questioning why I stay with an airline that has had a demise in customer service, cleanliness, and customer satisfaction when it isn’t even a convenient hub for my city.
The answer is that I believe that United can make it right.
This isn’t the error of the flight attendant who greets me at 5:45 a.m. on a commuter flight. This isn’t the error of the pilot who once left a sweet note on my table while I slept, thanking me for my loyalty. This isn’t the error of the cleaning crew who quietly clean up after passengers have littered, and more, on their flights. This is an error in decision of a handful of people.
United may not have the right team in place, they may need to hire outside consultants, and get well formed ideas from frequent fliers on how to make their policies and procedures right.
In the end, I am holding out for the underdog however my positioning is that when a company declares profits are so much more important than people they forget where the source of their profits come from and that is always a slippery slope.
If you own a business, I urge you to learn from United’s mistakes, get focused on your practices and keep people at the forefront of what you do.
‘PS – received this on the morning of April 27th. Definitely a good start – kudos United. I would love to suggest that 1K members get 3 free flight changes per year if they are not within 48 hours. Let’s up the service.’
Dear Ms Sly,
Each flight you take with us represents an important promise we make to you, our customer. It’s not simply that we make sure you reach your destination safely and on time, but also that you will be treated with the highest level of service and the deepest sense of dignity and respect.
Earlier this month, we broke that trust when a passenger was forcibly removed from one of our planes. We can never say we are sorry enough for what occurred, but we also know meaningful actions will speak louder than words. For the past several weeks, we have been urgently working to answer two questions: How did this happen, and how can we do our best to ensure this never happens again?
It happened because our corporate policies were placed ahead of our shared values. Our procedures got in the way of our employees doing what they know is right.
Fixing that problem starts now with changing how we fly, serve and respect our customers. This is a turning point for all of us here at United – and as CEO, it’s my responsibility to make sure that we learn from this experience and redouble our efforts to put our customers at the center of everything we do.
We also know that despite our best efforts, when things don’t go the way they should, we need to be there for you to make things right. There are several new ways we’re going to do just that.That’s why we announced that we will no longer ask law enforcement to remove customers from a flight and customers will not be required to give up their seat once on board – except in matters of safety or security.
We will increase incentives for voluntary rebooking up to $10,000 and will be eliminating the red tape on permanently lost bags with a new “no-questions-asked” $1,500 reimbursement policy. We will also be rolling out a new app for our employees that will enable them to provide on-the-spot goodwill gestures in the form of miles, travel credit and other amenities when your experience with us misses the mark. You can learn more about these commitments and many other changes at hub.united.com.
While these actions are important, I have found myself reflecting more broadly on the role we play and the responsibilities we have to you and the communities we serve.
Our goal should be nothing less than to make you truly proud to say, “I fly United.”I believe we must go further in redefining what United’s corporate citizenship looks like in our society. If our chief good as a company is only getting you to and from your destination, that would show a lack of moral imagination on our part. You can and ought to expect more from us, and we intend to live up to those higher expectations in the way we embody social responsibility and civic leadership everywhere we operate. I hope you will see that pledge express itself in our actions going forward, of which these initial, though important, changes are merely a first step.
We are working harder than ever for the privilege to serve you and I know we will be stronger, better and the customer-focused airline you expect and deserve.Ultimately, the measure of our success is your satisfaction and the past several weeks have moved us to go further than ever before in elevating your experience with us. I know our 87,000 employees have taken this message to heart, and they are as energized as ever to fulfill our promise to serve you better with each flight and earn the trust you’ve given us.
Susan Sly is a bestselling author, keynote speaker, certified NLP practitioner, coach, and trauma recovery specialist. Susan specializes in helping people become more productive so they can lead ridiculously fulfilling lives. She is the mother of five and has been working in human potential for over two decades.