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3 Practical Ways to Prevent United Airlines-Style Damage

Oscar Munoz, the CEO of United Airlines, recently ran a public letter of apology as an ad in several major newspapers. A much more detailed, self-abasing version of the apology was sent as an email to customers and ran in the May issue of United’s in-flight magazine, Hemispheres.

In the more extensive letters, Munoz referred to the “important promise we make to you, our customer” and admitted that “we broke that trust.” He described concessions that United will make “when things don’t go the way they should,” including significant payouts and “a new app for our employees that will enable them to provide on-the-spot goodwill gestures … when your experience with us misses the mark.”

Do Your Principles Match Your Practices?

Isn’t it a shame that employees might need an app to understand when and how to make goodwill gestures? Surely that’s not the case for your business, is it — not for you, your colleagues, nor anyone else in your hierarchy?

If you’re not absolutely sure, or if you’re too far removed from the action to know, consider these three ways to sync your principles and practices:

  1. Take concrete action: Do a deep review of all policies and procedures currently in place that have the potential to affect customers. That means not just the front page of the customer service policies posted in your contact center, but all of the significant rules and norms that can support or disturb customer satisfaction. Examples might include: having the right equipment available so flights can leave on time, and having enough hardware and technical expertise on hand so repairs can be done quickly.
    Back when instructions and manuals were still printed on paper, I used to ask clients for a copy of every rule, policy, form, and info sheet when I conducted operational assessments. Some of them would ship multiple cartons of documents and multicolored forms, many of which were in conflict, or had never been updated even though actual practice had changed significantly since they were written. No wonder employees don’t know what to do!
  1. Hold conceptual discussions: Written policies aren’t enough. Employees need to develop belief sets about “how we treat customers” and “how we behave at work.” These beliefs cannot be conveyed by updates, or dos and don’ts. Employees need lots of examples: “When a family with small children is seated separately, what could you do? When there is too much carryon, how could you handle it? When you notice one of your peers having a hard time with a customer, what are your options?”
    Review the pros and cons of the various alternatives, and also consider the long-term ramifications of customer experience and customer perception. What will customers be comfortable with? What will they video and post on social media? Will difference customers react differently?
  1. Create cultural congruency: To protect the company as well as customer goodwill, management must ensure that employees do not fear punishment or less overt negative consequences for trying to do the right thing. Employees learn that customer care is not just lip service when they see the modelling of good behavior by their peers and supervisors, service stars are recognized and elevated in the company, and they receive personal recognition for superior acts of service.
    Employees who are treated with respect consistently are much more likely to make it their personal commitment to provide appropriate customer care. For example, they should receive their assignments in advance and have all necessary resources and tools available to do their jobs; if adjustments have to be made suddenly to their schedules, there should be accommodations or “goodwill” gestures available for them.
    With cultural congruency, everyone feels they’re on the same page. The CEO won’t merely send messages, but also meets with employees and sends senior lieutenants to meet with them. It’s vital for the CEO to see the situations that employees have to deal with in airports where, say, there isn’t enough food at odd hours or there’s a lack restrooms close to the gates, or whatever other true and real problems they face.

The Heart of the Problem: Credibility

Mr. Munoz declared that United’s goal “should be nothing less than to make [customers] truly proud to say, ‘I fly United.’” That’s a very aggressive, aspirational goal. And Mr. Munoz claims that already “87,000 employees have taken this message to heart.”

How could that possibly be true? 87,000 employees means an awful lot of hearts, and you don’t change employees’ feelings through policy. Feelings only change through the lived experience that comes from concrete action, conceptual discussion, and cultural congruency.

Plus, the personal credibility of the leader is at stake. Mr. Munoz signed the ads “Oscar,” as if he expected readers and customers to perceive him as a friend, someone who looks out for their interests, someone they can call upon at any time. But if he doesn’t convey this sense of relationship directly to employees, then it’s all a hollow sham. If Mr. Munoz — and his leadership team — do not do the deep, daily work needed to make every one of those 87,000 employees feel that the hearts of their leadership team are committed to both employee wellbeing and customer care, then Mr. Munoz’s “friendship” is just one more phony promise.

You wouldn’t do that to your employees, or your customers, would you?

Onward and upward,


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