Customer Experience News & Trends

What really good service looks like (in the wake of really bad service)

United Airlines just gave the world a view of what really bad customer service looks (and can literally feel) like.

Here’s what people who care about the customer experience can learn from the airline’s service disaster.

Long story short

In case you missed it, United overbooked a flight from Chicago to Louisville. When no passengers volunteered to give up their seats (for incentives) to crew members on standby, United “volunteered” four passengers. Three left the plane. David Dao refused and United had three airport law enforcement officers escort him off.

Fellow passengers filmed and protested as the three officers dragged him from his seat, bloodied by an impact.

United made excuses and a shallow apology. A public relations disaster has followed. Stock dropped. Employees have been put on leave. Lawsuits have been threatened.

Here are four customer service best practices United missed — plus, examples and tips from companies that get it right time and again.

1. Put customers first

This wasn’t an uncommon situation for United (although the melee that followed was).

Case in point: Coincidentally, I was two United flights the same weekend as this incident, one also out of Chicago. Both of my flights were also overbooked. Attendants at both airports offered incentives for passengers to take other flights. But passengers didn’t want to delay their trip another day, so no one volunteered. At one gate, an employee told passengers they’d be “volunteered” based on the fare they paid, check-in time and loyalty status. One woman was privately told she’d be the first to go because she had paid the lowest fare. The rest of us were told no one would get on board unless people volunteered their seats. When we finally boarded (and the ove booking was resolved), an attendant said, “The lesson for everyone, ‘Book your seats’ early.” I felt like we were threatened, then chastised.

Passengers certainly weren’t put first. The business, which reported almost $5 billion profits in 2015, was first.

Who’s getting it right: The Chicago Bears.

The Bears survey fans who attend events each year. They make changes based on feedback. Then, when they send a survey to fans the following year, they tell them the fan-inspired improvements they made based on last year’s feedback. Fans know they’re listening, says Elaine Delos Reyes, director of fan marketing and research.

They also established a season ticket holder advisory group to get feedback to talk about game-day experiences and what needs to be done to make it better. So almost every decision is based around what customers would want to experience.

2. Be flexible

Airlines must abide by government regulations to ensure customer and employee safety. In this case, United demanded customers follow policies that fit the company, not mandated rules or policies for customers’ safety or best interest.

The better customer service providers follow what regulators say they must. They’re flexible with everything else.

Who’s getting it right: Southwest Airlines.

Perhaps a stark contrast to United, Southwest is known for allowing its employees to practice flexibility when working with customers. It starts with the company’s mission statement: “Dedication to highest quality of customer service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride and company spirit.”

A few examples of being flexible: When flights are delayed, gate agents hold trivia contests in the boarding area, giving away prizes and keeping kids entertained. Some have ordered pizza for passengers who were on board for a longer than expected time (because of FAA regulations) and handed out slices as passengers finally got off the plane. Agents often book customers onto new flights when their flights are grounded due to weather — well before customers even request the help.

And if you’ve never experienced a Southwest crew’s quick wit, you need to watch this.

3. Fix it first

United could’ve avoided this whole mess if the crew had resolved their too-many-people-not-enough-seats problem before people ever boarded the plane.

Telling customers they can’t have what you’ve given them (a seat) is worse than never giving it to them.

It’s not easy to avoid mistakes. But once one is made, employees should be able to take whatever steps necessary to prevent the mistake from getting worse.

Who’s getting it right: Mayo Clinic of Scottsdale.

Nurses at the Arizona hospital are empowered and encouraged to question a doctor’s decision or diagnosis through its “Plus One” protocol. If a nurse is concerned about the safety of a patient (that’s their customer), he or she can move up the chain of command immediately to get a second opinion and potentially override the initial care recommendation. There are no ramifications. The nurse is empowered to make sure mistakes aren’t made or made worse.

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