United’s Culture of Customer Service
United’s incident yesterday reinforced one key lesson that I learned when working in a corporate environment. Upper management often has a Utopian view of how their company is run in the trenches and how their policies are being carried out. I have never seen a corporate executive who didn’t want “a good customer experience” or to provide “stellar customer service”.
Unfortunately saying you want something or believing it is true simply doesn’t make it so. The reality is that a company’s true culture is always reflected in how it treats its customers. I used to work in a call center where agents could get away passing off “troubled customers”. Yes it was against the rules, but these long time employees figured out how to do it in a passive aggressive way. This lead to a true resentment of the company that upper-level management never seemed to be aware of. There was no culture that taught them to take care of the customers because “we care”.
United Missteps Many Times
United’s corporate culture was exposed with a giant spotlight yesterday as the the details of Sunday night’s incident came out. As the first reports came out yesterday morning, the company’s Twitter team issued a sad response apologizing for the overbooking situation. Yup, corporate culture at its finest.
Then to smooth things over, CEO Oscar Munoz issued a brief statement that had a nicer tone, but showed no true regret. That tone was walked back later in the day when a letter he sent to employees was leaked. In the letter he called the passenger “disruptive and belligerent”. This is something that was disputed by other passengers and the video we saw.
If only the world went to bed and woke up with amnesia or something?!? Unfortunately that didn’t happen and the outrage continued to spread today. Finally this afternoon Oscar Munoz did release a letter of apology. He says an investigation into the company’s policies and procedures will be done. He closed with, “I promise you we will do better.” Ah Utopia.
This Was Personal
I think the one thing that Munoz and his cohorts didn’t take into account was just how personal this situation was to all of us. We have all been trapped on a cramped plane waiting to take off. Many of us have seen unruly passengers removed from a plane or at least from a gate area. We get it. We want to be safe too. What we don’t get is when someone buys a ticket, walks on to a plane, takes their seat and then ends up getting dragged off bloody without doing anything wrong. I think we can all see ourselves in that guy’s shoes whether we believe we would have de-planed voluntarily or not.
Perhaps this entire situation highlights a huge truth we must come to terms with. Customers simply aren’t that important to most businesses anymore. There are the exceptions, but in most cases they don’t care. Or perhaps managers care, but not enough to create a culture of great service. So we live with the occasional company that treats us well and deal with the numerous companies that simply don’t care.
And of course the law is often stacked in their favor. How many people cited the “Contract of Carriage” (a huge document that no one ever reads) yesterday and how United was within their rights. I suspect they might have been within their rights although the jury is still out on that, but who cares? What happened was not acceptable even if they have a legal document to protect them.
It Isn’t Just Aviation
This happens in just about every area of our life too. Remember when being a member of American Express for 20 years meant something? Now they can just take your points and transfer you around without providing an answer. Even a small issue can result in endless frustration with most companies. Well, that is unless you push hard enough and reach one of those higher level managers who moves planets to help you. Utopia.
In a world where you can board a plane and get beaten and dragged by police for wanting to go home or even where eBay can take your rewards with no notice, we simply don’t have much power or many consumer protections when on our own. Thankfully when we all feel outrage, true outrage, and we collectively show it, then things can change. That letter of apology from Oscar Munoz is not something he wanted to write or else we would have seen it yesterday. He HAD to write it because we made him. But they “will do better”.
Who knows if this will result in a true change at United or if the lessons of this incident will be forgotten over time. Either way, the unfortunate reality of the world is that we will continue to live with a few great companies that make us feel like a million dollars and many many more that make us feel like sh*t. It’s just the way of the world.