Earlier this week, United Airlines made headlines when Chicago police officers dragged 69-year-old physician Dr. David Dao from his assigned seat at the airline’s behest. The incident occurred when fully-booked United Express Flight 3411 -- scheduled to depart from O’Hare International Airport to Louisville, Kentucky -- was delayed from departure to make room for four off-duty crew members needed in Kentucky the following day.
After making slight escalations in offered compensation ($400 then $800)with no success, United announced they would select four random "volunteers" to leave the plane. The first three who were chosen -- a young couple and another woman -- begrudgingly collected their belongings and disembarked. Dr. Dao was then chosen, but he refused to budge; he said he had patients to see the next morning.
The subsequent response to Dao would turn into a public relations nightmare for United. Frustrated by his refusal, United management sought help from the Chicago Department of Aviation. In a scene captured by multiple cell phones, three uniformed police officers briefly conversed with Dao before they seized him from his seat, reportedly breaking his nose on an armrest and concussing him in the process. They dragged him insensate from the airplane with his glasses askew, his shirt pulled up above his midriff and blood streaming down his face.
Of course, public outcry on social media was swift. United CEO Oscar Muñoz was derided for a bland statement euphemizing the incident that described Dao as “disruptive and belligerent.” But when United’s share prices fell, lawmakers condemned the assault as well as the president, and the public firestorm continued. The three involved officers were placed on leave and Mr. Muñoz became more apologetic.
So, what’s the outcome? United compensated all passengers on the flight the value of their tickets. They’re highly likely to face a lawsuit from Dao. Their brand is associated with assaulting their customers to accommodate their own staff. And accusations by Dao that he was selected for his ethnicity have damaged United’s image in important emerging markets.
All of this gives us a stellar example of how not to handle customer disputes. Obviously, don’t beat up your customers -- that’s bad for business. But beyond that, there are larger philosophical lessons we can learn for customer service, even if we aren’t a major corporation.
1. A customer’s needs are more important than your own. The United Airlines fiasco began because United decided to remove paying customers from a fully-booked flight in favor of its crew members. Besides the failure in logistics that culminated in this last minute urgency, paying customers take priority over your own convenience.
The counterpoint is that the crew was needed on a coming flight; without them, a whole flight would be inconvenienced instead of four passengers. While this doesn’t absolve United of their failure, it makes their position a little clearer. Faced with such an urgency, businesses are better off eating the cost of persuading customers instead of forcing them to comply with your will. The former might let you save a customer while the latter guarantees you’ll lose them.
2. Entice, don’t coerce. United offered $400, then $800 in compensation. When that failed, United opted for a lottery of inconvenience. Given that United isn't bound by federal caps in compensation, the airline should have sweetened the pot until they found actual volunteers. Instead, they tarnished their own reputation in both domestic and foreign markets. Nobody likes a bully.
Businesses can get creative when mollifying unhappy customers. Whether it’s a refund, a future discount, a gift or store credit, you’ll have options that shouldn’t eat too deeply into your bottom line. You know what they say about flies caught with honey.
3. Don’t take away what a customer already has. All airlines have the option to bump customers, even paying ones, from flights. The time to do this is at the gate -- not after they’ve checked in, sat down, and settled in.
The same goes for requiring customers to give back things they’ve already bought. It’s simply poor form. It’s perfectly reasonable to expect items returned for an exchange, but to sell an item, change your mind, and request it back without offering satisfactory compensation is going to create ill will. Nobody likes things snatched out of their hands.
4. Acknowledge wrongdoing when necessary. Oscar Muñoz sought to spin the situation to United’s benefit. It’s fairly standard corporate procedure, but the facts should have been evident from the outset -- it’s not like there weren’t multiple videos showing the event. As CEO, the buck stops with him, but when it came time to owning up, Muñoz equivocated.
When customers are upset, and they have at least some cause to be, don’t explain why it isn’t your fault. Give them the apology they want to hear. The only time to use the watered-down “I’m sorry you’re upset” apology is when customers are in clear violation of accepted terms, but you go the extra mile to sound sincere. Canned responses, in word or deed, should still be adapted for the time, place, and situation.
5. Don’t take a stand -- give yourself room to maneuver. The moment United management decided the plane wouldn’t leave until four passengers got off, they had backed themselves into a corner. It was salvageable, and then they decided to remove passengers by lottery. Every step of the way, they went down the wrong path, whether it was simply colossal lack of empathy or highly inflexible rules.
You can’t let that happen to you. Every company needs customer service guidelines, policies for refunds or exchanges, etc., and some are more generous than others. Allowing yourself to bend your own rules when necessary is how things get done smoothly. Companies don’t need to spend thousands on sentiment analysis for social CRM to know the "my way or the highway" approach isn’t popular with consumers.
6. Empower agents to resolve situations on your behalf. United already had a reputation as a stickler for their own rules, and they put their people in a harrowing position enforcing them. The manager who made this call undoubtedly felt bound by policy, and the crew members who replaced the four disembarked passengers were jeered when they boarded the plane.
Forcing employees to enforce rules they feel are unfair -- and then for them to reap the consequences -- is damaging to morale. Allowing employees to exercise their discretion in customer service situations, and backing up their decisions, gives your people the flexibility to find solutions or the authenticity to assuage hurt feelings if the customer isn’t mollified.
The very last thing you want is for your brand to be caught in the maelstrom of outrage currently swirling around United Airlines. But this isn’t an isolated situation as United’s built a reputation for treating their customers less like passengers and more like cargo. Let their's be a cautionary tale for your own customer service team: a truly awful customer experience can consume the largest brands. Even individual employees have the power to save a brand image.
Of course, start by not beating up your customers.
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