A Contrarian View on the United Airlines Customer Nightmare (We all have a role to play)

I was going to write a blog about all the missteps involved in the United Airlines customer experience disaster. Then I started seeing an “abundance of critics” rushing out of the woodworks – some of whom clearly have never tried to help a company strike a balance between customer needs and profitability.

With all this angst about the state of United’s customer experience and the doomsday reporting about the “fatally flawed” nature of air travel in general, I was reminded of that classic line likely written by Charles Dudley Warner (but often attributed to Mark Twain), which essentially goes, “Everyone complains about the weather but nobody does anything about it.” When it comes to the airline industry the weather, so to speak, is frighteningly challenging.

About 7 years ago, while working on my book The Zappos Experience, I remember talking to the CEO of Zappos, Tony Hsieh, about his company’s culture of customer experience excellence.

Tony said if you build a culture committed to, “wowing customers it doesn’t matter what you sell. In fact, I’ve often thought about opening an airline and transforming service in that industry.”

Later I posed the question of whether Zappos would start an airline to Tony’s longtime friend and then CFO of Zappos Alfred Lin. Alfred noted, “Tony thinks about starting an airline but I do my best to dissuade him because there are a lot less capital intensive and less regulated industries where we can make a difference and still make money.”

So how can both airline industry leaders and the rest of us (passengers) work together to create a more viable travel experience in a challenging industry? Let’s start with the part that is least comfortable to me, namely helping customers understand what they can take control over. Such things as…

  • Wanting it All: It has often been said that customers get the experience they deserve or pay for. This may be less true with airline travel since our choices are limited to a small number of carriers in an industry where the barriers to entry are great and flight paths are regulated by the FAA. That said, we as consumer’s, have to realize we can’t have it all unless we are willing to pay a “have it all” price. When I book on Southwest, I know I can’t get in the A boarding group unless I pay for it or unless I am a frequent flyer with them. That said, how much more would you pay for a ticket that guarantees you couldn’t be forced to yield your seat in an oversold situation? Until we are willing to pay for more…it is often difficult for brands to decide which of many customer “wants” they should actually invest in.
  • Not Understanding the Terms of Our Agreement:  (I’m as guilty as the next person on this one, so forgive me if I am preaching to myself.) When we make an online purchase and skip over the terms and conditions to click the buy button, we run the risk that we are making agreements that we will later complain about during the service delivery process. For example, most of us are reserving a seat on a plane subject to a number of conditions (arrival time at the gate, weather conditions, and even oversold situations). Later we have to consider the viability of our complaint when agreed upon circumstances surface. I liken that to people complaining about a president when they didn’t take the time to vote.
  • Thinking that Our Needs Are More Important than Everyone Else: In reality, I suspect that four people on that United Flight could have volunteered to change their travel arrangements with minimal impact, however, a number of people complained that four flight attendants were accommodated. In reality, that accomodation likely would have affected 200 plus passengers in the city where that flight crew was needed – thus creating cascading impact throughout the system. (I know, I know this was a last minute accomodation of the flight attendants and there were many factors at play but still, sometimes we have to think about the good of others.)

Now I can go back to where I spend most of my life which is trying to get business leaders not to blame the customer. Instead look for the levers that can drive customer value while still allowing the company to stay in business serving customers well into the future.

Onto the things that the airline industry can do and specifically what United needs to do going forward:

  • Apologize and don’t equivocate. Say you’re sorry for the way things were handled. Make no excuses, assure passengers that this situation will not be tolerated. Define the way by which you will address this breakdown through process, people, and technology in the days, weeks, and years ahead. Treat your customers as you would want your family treated!
  • Never let more people on the plane than you have seats for. If you are in an oversold situation in the boarding area, resolve the situation in the boarding area. Once you let passengers assume a seat, “oversold” is not a condition that allows you to violate your contract to transport them. As Delta did, beef up the compensation to induce passengers to disrupt their travel voluntarily when circumstances necessitate.
  • Appreciate the impact of customer care. As limited as choices may be for preferred carriers, preferred travel times and preferred routes, realize that airline passengers can churn (I suspect United will experience a meaningful backlash in passenger volume – at least over the short-term) but more importantly brand equity, enterprise value, customer perception, and future business partnerships are all be affected by a significant customer failure followed by a cascade of PR blunders.

Finally, where can we look for substantial changes in airline travel? I am convinced that customer-centric brands with strong service cultures like Southwest, Virgin, and Jet Blue will make incremental progress as industry insiders. At the same time, I am hoping that customer centric brands (not in airline travel per se) will enter the fray. I doubt Zappos will make the move, but I am watching Airbnb to see if they will literally take to the “air” as they continue to champion and innovate end-to-end travel experiences.

For now the United experience should be a wake-up call – not only in our lives as savvy travel passengers but also as providers of customer experiences in the businesses’ where we work and in the brand’s we steward.

How can we prevent a “United-type” incident from occurring, let alone going viral under our watch?

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Joseph A. Michelli, Ph.D. is a professional speaker and chief experience officer at The Michelli Experience. A New York Times #1 bestselling author, Dr. Michelli and his team consult with some of the world’s best customer experience companies.

Follow on Twitter: @josephmichelli

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