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Lessons In Customer Service From United Airlines

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By now we’ve all seen the horrific video of a passenger, David Dao, on a United Airlines flight being hauled from his seat by airport security because he refused to give up that seat to an airline employee. This form of institutionalized rudeness is not new to the airline. I’ve flown on it once in the past decade, and experienced so much rudeness from a flight attendant on that flight I vowed never to fly it again. I made that vow before Dr. Dao’s experience. At least two of my partners have done the same.

But we’re in a different industry: the retail industry. Why should this matter to us? Because courtesy and respect matter, and when events small and large continue to occur on our watch, it’s time to take a hard look at what we’re doing that contributes to the problem. What’s our corporate culture, anyway? And what have we done (absent the CEO appearing on “Undercover Boss “) to confirm that our culture is actually in place in the field? And what have we done to actually reinforce what we say we’re going to do?

Think about CEO Munoz’s response. It took three statements to ‘get it right.’ The first one was a bland apology: “I apologize for having for having to re-accommodate these customers, ” Mr. Munoz said in a statement. Re-accommodate in this case = 2 lost teeth, a concussion and cuts and bruises, which the Chicago police helpfully said occurred when Dr. Dao “fell on an armrest. ”

Then there was apology number two. It was a letter to United Airlines employees and basically blamed the victim. I’m not going to post it, but you can read the letter here.

Finally, after the entire world had seen the video, the company losing close to a billion dollars in market cap, lawsuits filed (the man was truly and seriously injured) and vows by many more never to fly the airline again, Mr. Munoz issued his third, far more contrite apology. Here’s a quote from the LA Times: “Like you, I continue to be disturbed by what happened on this flight, and I deeply apologize to the customer forcibly removed and to all the customers aboard, ” Munoz said. “No one should be treated that way. “

Ya think?

This story just keeps getting deeper and more bizarre. One question that has been bugging a lot of people is “Why did they wait until the plane was boarded to recognize it was overbooked and deal with it? ” I found an answer this morning on Forbes. Guess what, kids? The flight was NOT overbooked. Basically the four airline employees came to the gate after the flight was boarded and said “We need those seats. ” That’s when the farkle began. And, by the way, by many accounts, the ensuing series of actions wasn’t standard protocol, nor was it really legal.

It seems in the US, the stunning mass of mergers and acquisitions across the airline industry have left consumers with very few options. Luckily, I think American is a decent airline since I live in one of its hubs. It’s not as good as it was before the merger with US Air, but it’s still more or less okay. Delta has been great, but I don’t relish going through Atlanta’s airport, so unless I’m going someplace like Atlanta or another of its hubs, I just don’t use it.

Of course, retail isn’t like the airlines….consumers have many, many choices, and a lot of them have chosen Amazon and talking to no one rather than coming to stores and talking to…? That’s the question we have to ask ourselves? What is the “typical ” in-store experience, and what happens when we hit an outlier like United did? Do our employees know they are expected to go out of their way to help? Or do they just turn their backs and say “Whatever…sorry, can’t help “?

I’ve been writing two different reports about the state of the store over the past few weeks. Both tell us the industry has a long way to go in accepting responsibility for the problems in their stores. Look at it this way, the majority of retailers spend less than ten hours PER YEAR in training existing employees. Training is more than just learning to work the cash register. It also includes working with customers, dealing with difficult people, and working through seemingly intractable situations.

Think about the Target data breach back in 2013. Poor handling of that disaster cost a lot of executives their jobs, and frankly, it wasn’t all about data security. It was about the worst corporate response ever.

United will no doubt survive this debacle, albeit without many of my friends or me on their flights. Retailers just don’t have that luxury. We’ve read enough stories about “the death of retail as we know it. ” Frankly, I don’t buy that storyline, but until and unless we insure our cultures are customer-friendly, we are at risk. Even mammoth Comcast has recognized that many consumers are simply “cutting the cord ” and buying devices like Roku, Apple TV and others. And so they promise they’re going to be “nicer. ”

Retailing is the intersection of products, customers and employees. We would do well to ensure that the customer comes first. And that message starts from the top.

Newsletter Articles April 18, 2017
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