Last week, a video surfaced showing a passenger physically dragged from an oversold United Flight when he refused to give up his seat for a United employee. Not surprisingly, this incident caused outrage and disgust as evident from the backlash on social media, calls for a United boycott and plummet in the airline’s stock price.
As someone leading a customer care driven business, I believe that what happened on United flight #3411 and the ensuing response could have been avoided. While there has been a great deal of Monday morning quarterbacking, it is useful to use the United incident as a vehicle. Specifically, it’s an opportunity to reinforce what can be done to deliver high quality care and service that focuses on the consumer, to build a workplace that empowers employees and to make a positive impact on the community it serves.
With that in mind, let’s review those key ingredients to building a world-class company that provides the best service possible:
- Put the customer first. United failed to put the customer first that afternoon. While the airline might have been thinking about those customers waiting for a flight crew in Louisville, they did so at the expense of the passengers in Chicago. As a provider, your number one priority must be the customer. You must always lead with “what can I do to ensure that the customer gets what they need and has the best experience possible?” Not only is this the right thing to do, it builds your business. In addition, you are likely to retain the customer, and find that they become a passionate advocate for your business - recommending your services to friends, colleagues and family. The “likely to recommend” metric is critical in my field and one we strive to meet and exceed every day.
- Empower employees to do the right thing. I must admit that I found it completely baffling that at no time did an employee - from the gate agent to ground crew to flight crew to the pilots - step in to deescalate the situation and find an alternative solution. Why didn’t anyone do what was right? I can only assume that United employees have not been empowered to feel like they can take control and make on-the-spot decisions when needed. You must make employees feel empowered. They must believe they are capable and qualified to make a call that is in the best interest of the customer and the business when needed. Not only does it protect your employees but it breeds loyalty and a sense of ownership in the organization.
- Have systems in place that you review regularly. I understand bumping passengers is necessary from time to time. Things like headwinds that cause weight restrictions and broken equipment are unavoidable. And overselling seats is more likely to ensure maximum profitability. However, if you know an area of your business has the potential to negatively affect customers and that the repercussions are likely to cost more than the perceived profit, you might want to think of alternative solutions. For example, if flights out of Chicago have a significantly higher chance of overselling, consider decreasing the number of seats sold beyond capacity. Or if you consider my field - healthcare, and realize that things get backed up in your urgent care clinic starting at 3 pm, consider reducing the number of late afternoon appointments. My recommendation is that you should reevaluate your business for opportunities to maximize growth and productivity and minimize opportunities for dissatisfaction and disruption on a quarterly basis.
- If you make a mistake, own it. If all else fails and a mistake still occurs, own it. We all make mistakes but it is the way we account for them that speaks volumes. Had the CEO of United immediately and profusely apologized, offering meaningful compensation and recompense, some of the fallout could have been avoided. Instead he doubled down, made excuses and attacked the injured customer. I realize there can be certain barriers (legal) standing in the way of an apology but at the end of the day, there is nothing more powerful than admitting that you made a mistake.
Building a business is challenging and there are times when there are forces beyond your control that prevent you from giving your best to your customers. But a situation like the one that occurred with United is completely avoidable. If you follow some key guiding principles, you, your employees and your organization will find yourselves on the flight path to a successful journey.