By now you’ve seen the video of Chicago Aviation Police physically yanking an unwilling passenger off a United Airlines flight, knocking him unconscious, and dragging him down the aisle like they were taking out the trash. Likely you have also read United’s lame apologies. If we want to become experts. we need to see what we can learn from this incident.
I prefer to look at customer service from the customer’s point of view.
Great Customer Service = Meeting the Customer’s Expectations.
What are the expectations of a passenger sitting on an airplane? He bought a ticket. He is seated on the plane. At this point the only way he is getting off the plane is if one of three things happen.
First, everyone is asked to deplane. Maybe there is a mechanical failure. Maybe there is a weather delay and since they are still at the gate, the decision is made to get the passengers off for comfort and safety. He won’t be happy about it, but he knows this is a possibility.
Second, volunteers choose to deplane. The incentive offered by the airline is great enough for the volunteers to consciously offer up their seats for the rewards offered. This process had already started, but the incentives were not great enough for this passenger to give up his seat.
Third, someone is a danger to themselves or others.
That’s it. That’s the complete list from the customer’s point of view. Never in his wildest dreams did this gentleman think there was a fourth option of being forced off the plane. Physically manhandled and forced off the plane. Dragged down the aisle. Requiring a visit to the hospital. Maybe that was buried in some fine print somewhere. Maybe United had the right to do what they did. Regardless of their rights, United offered the worst possible customer service to this gentleman, and everyone on the airplane saw it (and many recorded it).
If United Airlines was a customer-centric airline that believed in meeting and exceeding their customers’ expectations, there wouldn’t ever be an option #4. In the scenario above they would be stuck at option #2 offering incentives after incentives, upping the ante as often as necessary until they got the volunteers they needed.
A free flight doesn’t work? Offer a free flight and a hotel. A free flight and a hotel doesn’t work? Throw in a rental car. Keep going until you find the sweet spot that gets you a volunteer happy to leave the airplane. And then, to exceed expectations, give that same offer to the other people who volunteered to get off the plane for less.
If United Airlines had done that, there would be four people tweeting and singing their praises. There would be four people telling us how awesome United Airlines is and how they will always fly the friendly skies. There would be four people that might end up costing United Airlines an extra $5000 total. That’s a mere pittance to what this debacle is going to cost them.
I figure the aftermath of this event will likely cost the airline millions of dollars, and no one will be tweeting anything friendly. They are going to lose customers. They are going to have legal bills. They are going to have to spend millions in PR and advertising. They are going to have to do something grand just to take care of the passenger they manhandled.
Here is the lesson… They could have bought word-of-mouth advertising by upping the ante on the incentives needed to get people to volunteer to leave the plane. It would have been the best $5000 advertising money they spent all year. Instead they chose to put their company’s needs over their customers’ needs and it will cost them millions of dollars.
You have that same choice every single day. you can figure out what your customer expects, then meet and exceed those expectations and have your customer sing your praises, or you can put yourself above your customer and pay through the nose.
PS United Airlines still has one chance to make this right. It will be way more costly than upping the incentives, but they need to make some grand public gesture such as giving this passenger free domestic flights for life, while also admitting that their policy was completely wrong and will be changed. Anything short of that will likely continue to cost them far more in the short and long run.