Flight or Fight

United Airlines ad campaign: Customer expectations matter. We beat them.

Jeffrey Denny

When United Airlines summoned its Chicago flight security thugs to thrash, bloody, water-board, stab, kneecap, dismember, disembowel, shackle and frog-walk an innocent, non-illegal Asian doctor for refusing to give up the seat he bought with hard-earned U.S. dollars, it unified our nation — libtard snowflakes and real red-hat Americans alike — in offending our shared sense of right and wrong. Especially when United’s goon squad broke the good Kentucky Dr. David Dao with proven medieval techniques including, but not limited to, the Judas Cradle, Brazen Bull, Pear of Anguish, Chinese Iron Maiden, Last Row Coach Next to Screaming Infant, Shamelessly Flatulent Seatmate, and repeat viewings of the pre-flight video about how friendly the United skies are.

Naturally, the internet exploded in a shocking, jaw-dropping, eye-popping earth-shaking bombshell firestorm and completely broke, like when the Jenner-Kardashians do something.

In the United Airlines “scandal” aftermath, PR experts — real and self-imagined like me — scrambled down from the hills to shoot the wounded, as legendary commentator Murray Kempton said about commentators.

Yes, United Airlines failed PR 101 as CEO Oscar Munoz at first seemed to blame the passenger while the company sounded befuddled by the fuss since, after all, United needed the seat way more than the customer did and had the right to drop kick him off the flight. While United certainly employs the best talent in corporate communications, crisis response and social media, the incident somehow has become the latest case study for everyone to declare how not to manage a disaster.

Sure, if a company’s vision, mission, purpose, values and business model are intended to abuse, insult, maim, poison, hospitalize or kill customers, then its PR folks come into work every day knowing they have truckloads of lemons to transform into silk purses. No problem. They know the deal, and they’re prepared, thanks to tested experience and secret flasks of Grey Goose to dull the existential pain.

Airline PR is especially tough when loyal paying customers routinely are confined, starved, sweating and threatened with kidney damage while sitting on the runway for hours, for reasons that defy reason. Or when pictures go viral of families hunkered on the floor at Chicago O’Hare overnight, like refugees fleeing murderous regimes, because of inexplicable flight delays. Or, in United’s case, when passengers are kicked off flights and seats they bought because United Continental Holdings had to cut back on costly personnel to achieve the synergy targets it promised Wall Street from the merger, so it needs to screw customers to fly its deadhead flight crew employees somewhere. In a free economy, customer jeers often=investor cheers.

But in PR, there’s a standard disaster-response playbook. When a horrible story breaks, the drill is no-brain: Respond quickly, honestly, within the hour, on all channels — internal, external, Twitter, Facebook, etc. Avoid getting defensive, making excuses or blaming the victim. Cop and apologize like you mean it, like you need to with your spouse and kids, not with lawyered-up caveats and passive voice that mistakes might have been made mistakenly by someone. The CEO message — tone at the top — speaks volumes and is core to the leader job. Then pledge to find out what went wrong, disclose it, fix it, and explain what you’re doing to make sure it never happens again.

You also don’t have time for a lot of meetings, mastication and internal consensus-achieving to respond to a reputation crisis. To flip Twain’s quip, in the social media age, the truth now travels ‘round the world while the $1,000/hour reputation management consultants are still slipping on their Ferragamos.

Embracing the United model for customer service

While PR armchair quarterbacks like me are judging how United should’ve/could’ve handled this reputational crisis, let’s switch gears and imagine how customer service professionals, from major companies like Verizon to the smallest corner dry cleaner, might look at this case study and ponder a contrary question:

“If United can treat customers this badly, and still thrive, then why can’t we?”

Think about it. United is a major global company — #80 on the Fortune 500 — with $38 billion in revenues last year from serving 143 million passengers on 4,500 flights every single day. It boggles the mind that with 1.6 million flights in a year, United had zero accidents and incidents.

Thank god, United knows what it’s doing.

United is not a flash-in-pan, fly-by-night enterprise, like many Silicon Alley startups or New Yorker-praised Brooklyn noodle restaurants with a 1.0% chance of surviving a year. United was founded in 1926, when Calvin Coolidge was president and Wilbur and Orville Wright were still a pretty young 59 and 55. Through global change, war and peace, thick and thin, United has proven itself a classic long-term corporate survivor story. Even though, every single day, United customers carp, kvetch, keen, wail, gnash teeth and yank hair over how they’re treated.*

Consider: How many companies can sell you a product or service, and promise to deliver it at a specific time, and then at the last minute say, sorry, no can do? Or take it away if they need to? And even give away the service it promised you to an employee?

All to say, if United can dispense with the old, costly, annoying “customer-first/customer always right” shibboleth and survive — even thrive — through myriad reputation challenges and crises, then what can other businesses learn and apply from its example?

Case studies for the new, United customer service model

You can pay McKinsey, Bain & Co., or other bajillion-dollar corporate consultants to borrow your watch, wrangle some data, put together a brilliant 50-slide deck with interactive graphics, and tell you it’s time to screw the customer. But before you spend the money, let me offer, for free, a few scenarios my customer service providers might consider:

Wells Fargo: You’re working through the cross-selling scandal that involved creating fake accounts for customers. For a customer like me with a real Wells Fargo mortgage, you could forget to include all the fees built into my monthly payments for years until they accumulate into a sudden, shocking bill for $50,000 that you sent to the credit bureau many times, but forgot to tell me about. When I discover and call to resolve the matter, your foreclosure thugs come and violently drag me out of my house so you can cross-sell the property to another customer.

Whole Foods: You’re getting your lunch eaten, so to speak, by every grocery store on Earth that somehow has figured out how to sell organic, locavore, non-GMO baby bok choy at less than $250/lb. I’d advise stepping up the attitude at the checkout counter when customers forget to bring their own grocery bags that are hand-woven by indigenous peoples in sub-Saharan micro-economies. That attitude makes Whole Foods customers feel deliciously guilty — and oddly alive — for complaining that the loup de mer (which the louche call “branzino”) wasn’t caught this morning when, meanwhile, indigenous peoples in sub-Saharan places who hand-weave the grocery bags we forgot have nothing to eat at all. Let alone loup de mer. When I collapse in shameful tears, holding up the line, Whole Foods calls security to come and violently drag me out to help the next customer.

Staples: Your merger with Office Depot failed, and you’re struggling, just like United is struggling with its successful Continental merger. Administrative professionals can buy reams of printer paper and ink, white-board markers, notebooks, alligator clips, highlighters, office snacks and Post-It notes anywhere, at any time, at deep discount, direct from China via Amazon. Staples can’t afford the niceties of customer service. So when I come into Staples and ask a stupid question like, “Do you have any staples?” (e.g., for a Swingline Optima 70), your customer-engagement specialist is trained to pause, look up annoyed from his phone, and say, “What? No. Sorry.” And when I ask, “Do you get the irony that Staples doesn’t have staples?” the customer-engagement specialist is trained to say, “Dude, I get irony. My major at Smith was ‘Perspectives of Irony in Medieval French Literature.’ I thrill in Derrida’s critical view of the relationship between text and meaning. I look at my Taco Bell Nacho Cheese Doritos Locos Tacos Supreme not as lunch, but ‘lunch.’ And I’ve seen every episode of The Office. I work at an office supply store. Any further questions for me today?” Then he calls security to come and violently drag me out to help the next customer.

Voting booth: It’s the 2018 midterm national elections, a year from this November, the first to reconsider the U.S. Congress since the 2016 election of President Donald Trump and the Republican-majority in Washington. I walk over to the local elementary school designated as my polling place and stand in a line that snakes about 3.5 miles. People brought picnic baskets, cases of wine and beer, lutes, flutes and other Elizabethan musical instruments suitable for festivity, boom boxes, lawn chairs, beer coolers, frozen margarita makers and other tailgating accoutrements. Porta Johns are groaning. Finally, after three days, I get to the clerk and present everything requested: My certified voter registration card and driver’s license, passport and birth certificate, plus, high-school yearbook; Ancestory.com printout; blood, sweat, tears, hair and stool samples; DNA analysis and retina scan; and, just to be safe, my Staples Rewards® card. The polling clerk checks all, looks at me suspiciously, and finally nods me to the voting booth. I enter and vote straight Democrat. Suddenly, an alarm rings. Someone shouts, “Voter fraud!” From nowhere, Steve Bannon, Sean Spicer and Kellyanne Conway appear and violently drag me out to make way for the next voter.

Not to defend United Airlines’ treatment of customers, or help speed the decline of customer service, but let’s admit, ignoring and even abusing the customer is efficient and good for business, which creates jobs and prosperity. Whatever your politics, isn’t that what makes America great?

Jeffrey Denny is a Washington writer

*A frequent United flier between Washington and Chicago, I’ve amused myself by compiling a list of the reasons why the plane wouldn’t be taking off or landing on time. These are all true: We don’t have a pilot/co-pilot. We’re missing a flight attendant. We’re waiting for the cleaning crew. The on-board refrigerator is leaking. The computer has a glitch. We don’t have a jet bridge crew. We’re in line waiting for a gate. The runway is backed up. There’s weather in Minnesota. My favorite: “Ladies and gentlemen, I don’t know how to put this, but basically, the plane is broken.” JD

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