How United Airlines Failed

The business of business is people.” -Herb Kelleher

The quote above has been repeated to me by every management professor I’ve ever had. As an undergrad and during my coursework as an MBA, my professors constantly stressed the importance of putting the customer first. Above all stakeholders, your customer is the one that determines whether or not your business efforts will pay off. Perhaps if United Airlines stressed the importance of customer service, we would not be witnessing the PR disasters that will have occurred over the past several weeks.

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United Airlines’ first 2017 PR disaster happened March 26 after one of their gate agents denied two girls from boarding a flight because company policy did not consider leggings appropriate attire for those traveling on pass benefits. Apparently pass holders need to be wearing real pants. Although there was a somewhat reasonable justification for the manner, the whole ordeal was entirely unnecessary. Before United had a chance to explain their reasonings, the internet took hold of the situation asking others to boycott the airline and to share in the outrage branded as United Airlines is trying to police women’s clothing. United’s corporate can’t control all of its employees’ decisions, but it can train them to be sensitive of decisions that would negatively reflect on the company as a whole. Even if it was against their company policy, a simple warning or notification to the pass holder’s benefactor would have settled this situation and no one would ever know about it. The gate agent’s co-workers should have stepped in and resolved the issue before a scene was caused. The last thing a traveler wants is to be embarrassed or spotlighted during an already stressful and worrrisome situation. If your actions could potentially embarrass a customer, you need to select an alternative.

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Monday morning, United Airlines’ PR team walked into a firestorm after their fellow employees had an older Asian man forcibly removed from a flight. The man was selected through a computer program that determines who needs to give up their seat if a flight is overbooked. Previous to the man dragged off the plane, a couple unhappily removed themselves from the flight after United informed them that they were selected to be kicked off the flight. Even if the aggressive removal didn’t happen, surely none of the selected customers would choose United again. They refused service to compliant customers trying to reach their destination. And they did this knowing it was their own error.

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Did United have alternative solutions to forcibly removing the man? Of course they did! The most obvious solution would be to keep upping the reward for volunteering your seat. If $800 and a night in night in a hotel is not enough to incentivize a volunteer, give them a night in a suite and tickets in first class. If your company makes a mistake, you should be prepared to eat the cost in order to make it right. Telling people they are no longer welcome or much worse, forcibly removing them, will make your customers feel that they are no longer valued and are un-important.

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The best marketing is word-of-mouth. It’s free and highly effective. People are much more likely to listen to their peers than any advertising campaign. So what can we learn from United’s mistakes? “The business of business is people”. Your customers are individuals with feelings and they along with their peers have a strong voice. Don’t embarrass them. Don’t make them pay for your mistake. Treat people the way you want to be treated and treat your customers even better.

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