Just like anyone with a pulse and Internet access, I have been closely following the United Airlines saga. No, not the leggings fiasco. Nope, not the scorpion falling out of the overhead compartment. You know, the one where security physically and forcibly dragged a passenger out of his seat and off the plane…yep, that one!
Stop. Just stop.
Yes it happened and it’s horrific. There are no excuses for it. I’ve been nudged by many who know me, asking why I haven’t written about the most widely talked about customer experience debacle and given my two cents. The answer is simple. I have been waiting for the dust to settle (which is near impossible with social media). I wanted to be able to separate emotion from fact and come from a place of clarity and understanding when I discuss the situation. Social media amplified a seriously bad move and the images are playing in a continuous loop everywhere, which had us all lathered up. When you watch that video, your emotional response is triggered immediately and that man becomes all of us.  I wanted some time and distance to gain some perspective before offering my thoughts and now I am ready to discuss what I see as the real issue.
The real issue was not the incident itself, it is the incredibly poor job United did in the recovery. United Airlines blew it. Plain and simple. Their actions and response following the debacle is as bad, if not worse than the incident itself. They had a chance to own it, show empathy, remorse, apologize and ask for forgiveness to win over the hearts and minds of that poor passenger and the rest of us, and they failed.
Don’t kid yourself and think this is an isolated occurrence either. All of our businesses make mistakes in how we handle certain customer situations every day. From being served the wrong cup of coffee to being forcibly removed from an airplane seat, sh*t happens. We disappoint, irritate and even alienate customers on a regular basis. However, when we take responsibility and show that we are willing to do what it takes to make it right, THAT makes the difference between the public embracing you or vilifying you.
United Airlines did more damage in their “recovery” instead of SHOWING the appropriate emotions and TAKING actions that would gain back customer loyalty. The way I see it is that the recovery, or the lack of an adequate recovery, speaks to an obvious absence of a customer-first culture at United. If United is explaining away the forcible removal of the passenger by assigning blame to the non-United security team, what is their excuse for their poor recovery? They are not focused on the customer first, they are focused on United’s policies, procedures and protocols first, and that has now put them last.
If you get ahead of mistakes in the right way, which is quickly and with a clear and genuine admission of wrongdoing, you have a much better chance at a positive rebound. You need to show empathy and transparency, not release a fluffy statement filled with buzzwords and jargon.
Historically, any public figure or company guilty of a blunder is usually forgiven (cough cough, even Charlie Sheen).
United failed to put themselves in the seat of their customer and instead went into full-fledged defensive mode. And that’s why they lost and continue to lose the support of the public. You know what defense mode does? It’s like pouring gasoline on a fire.
As I was thinking about this whole cluster, I saw the Jimmy Kimmel clip and momentarily thought I wouldn’t even write about this because he NAILED it. If you haven’t watched it, you should! As a matter of fact, as a brand, when you find yourself in these disasters, perhaps you should ask the poignant question – WWJD – What Would Jimmy Do?
I also found myself asking what would I do in this scenario…as the passenger? As a fellow passenger? And even as United’s CEO? I can tell you right now, that if I were CEO, I would have scrapped that ridiculous letter, that was likely written for him, and instead driven to that passenger’s house myself to offer a heartfelt and personal apology and find out what could be done. Instead we will all get to see how this case plays out in the courts.
Unfortunately, United Airlines has set a new standard in what NOT to do in a bad situation and likely sealed their fate in the world of CX perception. Just because this didn’t have a happy ending doesn’t mean there isn’t a ton to learn.
What would YOU have done differently? Anything aside from what I’ve put out there? Tweet me at @gmagenta
April 29, 2017


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