In a day where every service oriented company is touting they that are “Customer Centric” or “All About the Customer” the incident with United Airlines a few weeks ago proves that many organizations still have a long way to go when it come to providing good customer service let along an outstanding customer experience.


Here are 4 lessons learned from the United Airlines debacle that can be easily followed in any organization whether a service provider or not.


  1. Focusing on your own needs vs. the needs of your customer. In the United situation, it’s my understanding that 4 United crew-members showed up after the plane was boarded and needed to get to Louisville. This was clearly a need of the business to get these valuable team members somewhere to continue to provide service to others that had purchased tickets.


While we can all agree that having a crew available to fly a plane in Louisville is important, we can also agree that poor planning, delays and logistics are not the customers fault. I’m sure there were other aircraft or other airlines heading down to Louisville that day, or other crew members somewhere that may have been able to pick up the slack.


Yet in the infinite wisdom of the airline that day, their own need to put that crew on the plane was clearly the most important need.


Anyone in business knows that we may need to make a decision that will impact our customer in a negative manner, which is why the 2nd lesson of customer service can be extremely important to remember.



  1. Policies and procedures are a guideline not a law when it comes to customer service. United has used it’s policy of only offering up to $800 for overbooked flights- “or else” someone is getting bumped by random selection (which as we’ve read isn’t random at all but based on your status, cost of you ticket, and a host of other things that deem your value to the airline). First of all that’s ridiculous because as any frequent flier can tell you, that number has hit $1500 when the airline was in a jam and needed the seat and usually someone always jumps at it once the redemption award hits $1000.


Even if $800 max was the policy, this by United’s own admission was a unique situation where the flight had already been boarded, which meant someone would have to get up out of their seat, remove their bag from the over-head bin and walk off the plane. I don’t know about you, but once I’m in, I’m staying.


There is no way any organization can write a policy that would possibly be able to address every situation when it comes to service because you are dealing with people, and people don’t necessary behave according to your procedure. By the way when it comes to service and you are feeling wronged- do you really care what the company’s “policy” is regarding your situation? Especially when the policy seems to make no sense and doesn’t show a genuine concern for the customer.


Because we can’t prepare for every customer service situation, the 3rd rule of service is probably one of the most important.


  1. Empower your front line team members to make intelligent decisions to serve your customers. When your service providers are coached and trained to make smart decisions for your customers and know they won’t face negative repercussions as a result then those unique situations where the policy doesn’t really fit the problem get resolved so much easier.


Organizations like Disney World, Ritz Carlton, and Apple make it a priority to let their team members know they are not only empowered to solve customer issues, but it’s an expectation set by the organization from day one that the customer truly does come first. When they make a decision that errors on the side of providing an amazing customer experience or simply solving a unique problem they will not be punished, but rather they will be recognized and celebrated as a star.


Clearly the gate agent for United did not feel empowered to offer a few hundred dollars more for volunteers and meet the needs of both the company and the customer. Maybe the management culture at United Airlines punishes gates agents that do the right thing to avoid situations like we just saw- but I seriously doubt it.


  1. Apologize and own it when you make a mistake. This should be self-explanatory, but for some reason the CEO (or soon to be former CEO) of United couldn’t apologize to this poor battered customer, the other passengers, and the world when he needed to the most. Instead his baffling statement placed the blame on the customer that didn’t want to follow the “rules of Carriage”- REALLY? What the hell is that?

I’ve flown thousands of flights over the past 20 years and never once been versed or read any document on the “rules of carriage.”


Look, this one is a no brainer. In our business and in our lives we are going to make a lot of mistakes or drop the ball, it’s inevitable. When you do own up to it, don’t blame others. Once you genuinely own your mistake it’s so much easier to move your focus and energy over to actually fixing the problem.


In our business we are not paid for perfection, we are paid for results. Most will give you the benefit of the doubt if you simply acknowledge or apologize for the situation and then start working to deal with it.


As a side- note while I’m not a frequent flier on United I have flown their airline many times and would do so again as I know there are thousands of men and women that show up everyday to serve their customers in the most professional manner.


When there is a situation like this at the front line level it’s important to look at management and culture- and I believe the clueless response of the CEO really speaks to the actual problem at United. I’ve heard it said that “No one cares about Leadership when you’re winning.” True leaders show up at the best in when times are at their worst. I’ll let you be the judge as to the Leadership response in this situation.


Thoughts for the week:



Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning. ~ Bill Gates


Customers don’t expect you to be perfect. They do expect you to fix things when they go wrong. ~ Donald Porter


Being on par in terms of price and quality only gets you into the game. Service wins the game. ~ Tony Allesandra


You’ll never have a product or price advantage again. They can be easily duplicated, but a strong customer service culture can’t be copied. ~ Jerry Fritz


If you’re not serving the customer, your job is to be serving someone who is. ~ Jan Carlzon


Customer service is just a day in, day out ongoing, never ending, unremitting, persevering, compassionate, type of activity. ~ Leon Gorman


Looking forward to our next connection!