United Airlines: Actions Speak Louder than Words

Gail Cowling

April 23, 2017

By now, you’ve heard about the troubles that United Airlines has been experiencing. Their PR team is working hard at damage control after a passenger was forcibly removed. As a result of this event, the social media backlash has been considerable, to put it mildly.

It’s an interesting case study, and one that has a lot of implications for other brands. Because all brands are under the consumer microscope. One of the things that strikes me about the situation is that United is once again in reaction mode, rather than looking ahead to find ways to avoid this type of situation. With millions of customer interactions occurring daily, United and other airlines make serious errors on a regular basis. I say this, not to excuse any airline from this sort of behaviour, but to highlight the complexity of a customer’s journey and the importance of considering a customer’s feelings at each step. I have to wonder how much airlines really work at knowing about their customers’ experiences and empathizing with their feelings.

United sent me an email, presumably as I am a frequent flier. Mr. Munoz, the CEO, says in the email:

“For the past several weeks, we have been urgently working to answer two questions: How did this happen, and how can we do our best to ensure this never happens again?”

He answers the first by saying,

“It happened because our corporate policies were placed ahead of our shared values. Our procedures got in the way of our employees doing what they know is right.”

He then goes on to outline a number of policy and procedural changes, including offering up to $10,000 to passengers in an overbook situation.

We are in the customer experience consulting business, helping large, global, complex companies with their customers’ journeys, so I read this with a great deal of interest.

The customer’s journey begins with an idea, a thought. It starts long before they encounter the company. This journey intersects most often, with a digital component of the experience as they search for the right flight, at the right price, and combine this with other parts of their trip. Once they book their flights, hotels, ground transport etc, the customer encounters digital waypoints as they go through check-in, seat selection, get updates on gates, occupy themselves while waiting to board and during the flight, navigate their way through arrivals, and, receive post-trip customer satisfaction surveys. This customer’s journey is really about how they feel as they encounter a company’s promises, processes, policies and people. It is uniquely theirs. While there are external factors over which airlines may have little or no control, their response in that moment of truth is definitely under their control and will have the most impact on the customer’s feelings towards them.

Mr. Munoz says,

“Fixing that problem starts now with changing how we fly, serve and respect our customers. [...] and redouble our efforts to put our customers at the center of everything we do.”

His initial response to the situation followed by rebooking compensation limit increases are reactive and do not address the true problems:

  1. How customers feel about being denied boarding after having endured the ordeal of checking-in, TSA, waiting etc.
  2. The issue of overbooking

According to The Economist, United is the (dubious) leader among major national US Airlines in the number of involuntary and voluntary denials of boarding.1 According to the ACSI, United rates well below the industry benchmark and has done so consistently for the better part of two decades.2 In contrast, JetBlue has negligible denials of boarding and has rated highest of all the ASCI measured airlines since 2012 when they joined the metric.

In our experience, it will take a lot more than redoubling efforts to improve customers’ feelings about United. It will take a meticulous, continuous process that examines every direct and indirect touch point from the customer’s point of view. It takes a thoughtful approach and empathetic culture to truly commit to walk in the customer’s shoes. It takes action to lower the hurdles and eliminate the blockages found by seeing the company through the customer’s eyes. While the stock prices have stabilized, public ridicule and revulsion towards United continues. There is a lot more at stake here. I think that the true impact of this customer horror is yet to be fully realized. One thing Mr. Munoz is right about – meaningful actions speak louder than words. We’ll see what they do.