What We Can Learn from United Airlines About Customer Service

You could say that pulling a paying customer out of his seat and dragging him off the plane is the ultimate in bad customer service.

Obviously, United Airlines is addressing this in more ways than one. (An impending lawsuit will do that - which was settled out of court.)

But what caused this to get so out of hand? How could this have been prevented? What’s the absolute worst occurrence that could happen in your organization that can be compared to United’s debacle - and how can you avoid it?

Clearly, there are more questions than answers in this case but still worth reviewing.

Just one instance of bad customer service can ruin your business.

11 Core Customer Service Principles

In our first post, we listed 11 concepts borrowed from some of the best minds in service.  

  • The answer is yes.  What’s your question? - Ritz Carlton
  • Find out what the customer wants and give it to them. - Zingermans
  • A person’s name is their favorite word. - Dale Carnegie
  • “My pleasure” vs “No problem.” - Southern Hospitality
  • A great smile opens all doors - anonymous
  • Giving someone time is the most valuable thing you can give.  Don’t waste it! - Dale Carnegie
  • It is better to serve than receive-The Bible (and in tennis)
  • Find ways to “surprise and delight.” - Luxury Marketing Council
  • Don’t think of it as great customer service, think of it as hospitality. - Dan Meyer
  • Be more interested in finding out about others than telling about yourself. - Dale Carnegie
  • Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. - Bible and Colonel Littleton Luggage

But providing what we think of as good customer service is not enough.

We must also know ...

How to Measure Customer Service

Through measuring service, we learned that poor service boils down to problems with either the system, the employee or management.  

Often, it’s not the employee but the system or training of that system which is management’s role.

What United Airlines Could Have Done Differently

Would the United employee have dragged the poor doctor out of his seat if there was a different system in place?  

Have a Really Great Plan "A"

For example, if United’s system was to increase the incentive for passengers to give up their seats, could this have been prevented?  

As they say, there’s a price for everything. Maybe one night in a cheap hotel and a free ticket is not enough.  

What happens if they increased the incentive and still no takers?  

But Make Sure You Have a Plan "B"

Then you have the same situation unless there’s a back up to the incentive.  

There needs to be a system or process for that and employees need to be trained on it.  

I don’t know what systematic options airlines have, but it obviously needs review.

What If TheY Applied Our Customer Service "Concepts"?

I’m wondering if training on our service “concepts” would have, could have, prevented this awful situation.  

Let’s test it.

Imagine This Conversation

United:     “The answer is yes.  What’s your question?”  

Customer:    “.......I’d like to stay in the seat I paid for thank you very much.”

United:        “Find out what the customer wants and give it to them.”

Customer:    “I need to get home to service my patients.”

This conversation embodies our top two concepts.

An organization has to make a decision to be customer centric in order to make improvements toward that end.

Could these concepts be stronger than systems or lack of systems?  

After reading the response from United’s CEO, it seems clear he is actually blaming the customer - instead of recognizing cracks in their own system!

He supported his employees in following “procedure” so this incident or something like it was inevitable.

So what can we learn from this?  

“Bad systems can break a good employee” so we need to be sure about our systems and train our people on those systems.  

When the system, as in this case, doesn’t seem right, you should be able to fall back on your core values or concepts that your organization embraces and do the right by your customers.

Everyone needs to be customer centric.  

Although this is an example of an extreme case, we should pause to think of what could cause your organization to completely ignore the customer’s rights.

Leave a comment below and tell us if you think a situation like this could happen in your organization. What can you do now to prevent it?