5 Lessons from United Airlines Recent Customer Service Crash

Last month, United Airlines forcibly removed a passenger from a flight after he had boarded in order to make room for United employees who needed to fly to the destination. The airline selected passengers to leave the flight after they weren’t able to recruit enough volunteers.

Dr. David Dao resisted leaving and suffered a number of injuries when he was dragged off the plane by law enforcement. United’s brand was dragged through the mud as a result of this incident as well, and the first two responses from CEO Oscar Munoz failed to realize how big a disaster this incident could become. Finally, on the third try, United adopted an apologetic, conciliatory tone in an attempt to put this all behind them.

Five Lessons to Take Away from United Airlines’ Customer Service Fiasco

United has since entered into a monetary settlement with Dr. Dao and changed their overbooking reimbursement policies. But there are five lessons from this story applicable to all of us and our customer service efforts:

1. Someone is always watching.

In today’s networked smart phone world, someone is not just watching but likely also recording incidents like this as they unfold. In this case, there were multiple cell phone videos of the actual incident, and they contradicted the original police report that said Dr. Dao had been combatant. It’s no longer a matter of he said-she said when we can see what actually happened.

2. Don’t argue over technicalities.

While United may have been within its legal rights to remove a passenger from a plane, this was not relevant to the discussion. The bigger customer service issue was how this looked, not just to fellow passengers on that flight but also to the public at large. The customer may not always be right, but it does a brand no good to point out the fact that bullying behavior like this may in fact be legal.

3. The public punishes the pattern.

Just like an umpire will be unlikely to give a close call to a pitcher who has been making erratic pitches, the public is unlikely to give the benefit of the doubt to a company who has a reputation for bad behavior. United’s reputation for poor customer service dates back to the smashing of a passenger’s guitar in 2007 (and their refusal to pay for the damage) and includes the unfortunate death of the world’s largest rabbit while in United care a few weeks after the Dao incident.

4, Competitors will quickly show they’re not in the same boat.

Almost immediately, a story surfaced about how Delta’s CEO gave up his seat to help a mother reunited with a child with special needs. We heard how Southwest turned around a plane on the runway to enable a passenger to get off and transfer to another flight (at no charge) to get to a family member that was seriously ill. These were not new stories, but they were retold demonstrations of outstanding customer service. What was new was Delta changing their bumping policy to offer up to $10,000 for a passenger to voluntarily give up their seat.

5. It takes time to build back trust.

United realized they needed to change their approach and started saying the right things. Words are cheap. It will take time and a set of ongoing positive customer service experiences for the traveling public to begin to trust United again. It also means that every United employee at every airport and on every flight is under extra scrutiny to do the right thing and behave properly.

Before you poke fingers at United, ask what your organization would do in a similar customer service scenario. What kind of power do you give customer-facing employees in situations like this? Do you enforce a set of arcane rules and regulations, or do you empower them to make judgments that reflect the best resolution of the situation at hand?

How will your customer service team respond when your brand is under the glare of a hundred live video feeds? Will you soar above the noise or crash?