In the study of God there is something known as “negative theology”, by which people learn about the divine through a definition of what God is not. It sounds strange, but is illustrative. Similarly, I think we can learn a great deal about business by learning what NOT to do.
I recently flew United Airlines and had a terrible experience. While my first flight from Nashville to Chicago left on time and was pleasant, at least as much as it can be on a puddle jumper with a Duck Dynasty wannabe in the row behind me who spoke loud enough to demonstrate his arrogance and ignorance to everyone from row 21 to 10, my connecting flight was delayed five times-for a total of 4 1/2 hours.
Every 45 minutes the status was updated, as if the airline just couldn’t figure out what was going on (“Do we have airplanes? Do we have people who can fly them?”), and while the delay was a minor inconvenience, the manner in which United treats passengers is a textbook lesson in how NOT to interact with the public (and a great learning experience for marketers or PR personnel who want to know how to excel in business).
First, there was no communication from the airline; the passengers in the know (like me), got updates from the booking agency via text or email, long before gate attendants (had they been present) had information.
Secondly, the airline made no attempt (even half-hearted) at apology. A simple “I’m sorry for your inconvenience”, goes a long way. It soothes tired wives, frustrated travelers, and even irrational in-laws (well, maybe). But for United-and other dinosaurs out of touch with the needs of post-Magna Carta mankind-this free expression of remorse is too expensive to be squandered on full rate-paying passengers.
Third, the airline offered nothing in compensation for the inconvenience. This gesture, a norm of human conduct so simple as to be understood by waitresses, pizza delivery boys, delayed husbands and anyone with a pulse in the service industry, is foreign to the airline. It costs them almost nothing to offer a discount on a future flight, a free seat on the next route (there are often empty seats), a free drink, or even a refund. Imagine if a gate agent said, “Ladies, gentlemen, and other passengers, we have now delayed your flight five times, and while we accept no responsibility for the disruption to your lives, the lost sleep, or the grave inconvenience to your friends, loved ones or hoped-for acquaintances, please accept a Martini on us”. The concourse would erupt in applause. The good will would be enormous. 3% of passengers out of the Cleveland hub would hope for this outcome.
Fourth, customer service reps lacked information that was available on flight status apps. I called United and the agent with a south Asian accent couldn’t tell me whether the plane scheduled to arrive in 30 minutes had even left its destination 45 minutes away (although a free android app accurately predicted it’s location en route AND accurate arrival time).
United Airlines has roughly $40 billion in annual revenue. That’s $100 million PER DAY. What would it cost to employ one person with an IQ three deviations from the mean to say, “Here’s how we could steal market share, endear our customers to us, earn free media, recruit more caring employees, boost airline loyalty and change our reputation forever”?
For United, whatever the price, it’s likely too much. But for the others, I’m 213% more effective at half the price of whoever planned your current customer relationship model.