Is Your Business Really That Different from United Airlines?

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Is Your Business Really That Different from United Airlines?

airline attendant helping customer

airline attendant helping customer

by David Ham | April 18, 2017

We have all heard about the United Airlines situation from last week. The story resonates with those of us who fly. The stress of overcrowded flights and gate areas is all too familiar.

We have all heard gate agents asking customers to give up their seats on overbooked flights in return for some type of compensation. Maybe you have taken one of those offers.

In the case of United, we have all seen photographs or videos of a paying customer who wasn’t deemed a security risk and who, by all accounts, had been minding his own business until he was asked to leave the airplane. The United Airlines staff was adhering to their policy of letting a computer “randomly” determine who to remove from the plane to make room for another flight crew.

We all know what came next. He refused to leave. He argued. When the paying customer refused to go along with the computer’s decision, the staff continued adhering to policy and had police officers physically remove that customer from the plane.

It’s a powerful story because so many of us can envision ourselves in that situation. I flew a few days later last week on another airline wondering if I might be asked to take an offer for my seat. It’s also powerful because we could see exactly what happened. We saw the customer removed, we saw him bleeding, we saw him stagger back onto the plane.

I have spoken with people who defended the airline. They acted within their legal rights. The employees were following their training and company policy. However, I would be shocked to think that at no point in the process someone discussed changing the question from, “How do we enforce the policy and the law?” to “Are we doing the right thing for the business?” Or, “How will this look on video?” And then, “How might this affect our shareholders (or our employees’ reputation or our future customers’ behavior)?”

It’s easy for us with the benefit of hindsight to point out everything that went wrong in this situation and how we would manage it differently. The reality, however, is that many businesses are treating customers poorly every day in the context of enforcing policy. What is scary is that it is often hidden from view while occurring under the guise of “customer care.” We train our staff to do it in more subtle ways and we as managers don’t see it because it doesn’t appear on YouTube.

CFI Group conducts annual research studies of contact center performance for both the public and private sectors. These customer experience studies measure the quality of service interactions through call centers, interactive chat, and email support. Not surprisingly, the IVR experience consistently scores low. This technology is often beneficial for customers (or potential customers) to help them get quick answers to questions like account balances, payment due dates, or retail or store hours. Customers often become frustrated with them when they are looking for quick answers to complex questions and need to navigate through to reach a live agent. The IVR might be analogous to the United Airlines computer.

Once customers reach an agent our research shows that they generally like the agents but become frustrated by the adherence to policies and procedures that are often designed to minimize costs and protect the company, at the expense or inconvenience of a company’s customer or a citizen that a government office is supposed to serve. This is the strict adherence to policy that United’s staff followed.

I have worked with a retail client that trusted their customer care agents to make decisions on the fly. The company’s CRM system and rewards program were integrated to allow the agent to see how valuable an individual customer is, and make decisions accordingly. One customer calling with a problem might get a polite apology, another with the same problem might receive a $50 gift card. The goal was to save the most valued customers.

Giving your people the flexibility to do the right thing for the customer can protect your organization from upsetting high value customers, who might not be as visible as the doctor was on the United flight, but who will make decisions about whether to continue as customers with you . . . and influence the decisions of others in conversations and on social media.

For more information from CFI Group’s call center industry reports, visit:

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