Lessons From a Public Relations Debacle

Posted on 30th May 2017


Welcome to the Business Empathy Forum and thank you for your visit. In this post I refer you to an article by Sam Mallikarjunan that discusses United Airlines ‘re-accommodation’ controversy and offers advice for firms that need to maintain empathy and trust while resolving customer problems.

Learning from United Airlines’ ‘Empathy-Fail’

Some background: United is facing a PR crisis because it forcibly removed a passenger who was already seated on a plane. United oversold the flight and needed to seat four of its employees to have them in another city the next day. “Overselling flights is a common practice on airlines, with them betting that some will cancel or no-show and they’ll maximize the value of putting the plane in the air. It’s a process designed around efficiency and betting that maximizing the utilization of resources will generate more long-term revenue than avoiding customer pain. In theory, it’s not a bad plan. But in reality, a passenger resisted and was dragged off the plane by police only to return later bloodied and visibly traumatized.”

The author asserts that the root of the dispute – and of the damage that followed – was a blind reliance on airline protocols, without any flexibility or analysis of consequences. He suggests that the correct way to handle such situations is to first fix the customer’s problem: “Step back from what the process protocols tell you is supposed to happen and deliver the most human and helpful solution. In United’s case, they should have either found a way to get their Louisville flight off the ground without that crew or they should have found a way to get their crew to Louisville without this flight.”

Once the customer problem is resolved, it is time to fix the process design error that led to the problem in the first place. “You’ve just made an expensive mistake, for example having to buy your crew last-minute tickets on another airline to get them to Louisville. Conduct a post-mortem to figure out what broke in the process and fix it in the future. Most companies only do the second Fix after there’s an issue. Right now, the highest levels of United’s executive management teams are talking about how to deal with the blow back and how to make sure it doesn’t happen again in the future. How about we skip the blow back and go right to making sure it doesn’t happen again?”

Mallikarjunan argues that the way for companies to make this work is to trust their employees to make the right decisions. “Companies that survive the speed of the 21st century will empower their employees with the authority to break from set process to serve the interests of the customer… Every employee should be able to solve a customer’s problem or find out who can. If they can’t, then something in your business process has broken down.” Wise advise.

Good luck, and until next time…