United Airlines has moved to make major changes to their internal procedures since the dragging incident that caused a tremendous media uproar. They announced changes to the amount of money they offer for customers who voluntarily choose to take a later flight. And, they announced a renewed focus on customer service.
Some of those changes are due to their own internal discussions on how to improve. There’s also a desire not to have congress step in to regulate the airlines further, a heck of a motivation. While the United dragging incident is the most visible recently, the public as a whole is looking for a pound of flesh for the degradation of customer service overall in the airline industry.
It’s a long process to change a deeply seated belief that the customer isn’t the first priority. Today’s news of an United Airlines employee canceling a customer’s ticket over a disagreement is a prime example of that. Take a look for yourself:
The Customer Is A Big Part Of The Problem
The customer was upset that they were getting charged a different amount to check their bag on their return flight as opposed to the outbound flight. When the discussion got heated, they started videotaping the argument. To be clear, I’m 100% in disagreement with the customer’s actions. Videotaping a disagreement with someone else is rarely going to de-escalate the situation. If their goal was to get their bag checked at the lower price, trying to embarrass the employee their dealing with is unlikely to aid their cause.
The Employee Needs To Understand They Were Wrong
No matter what the customer did here, the employee is wrong. The statement from United doesn’t actually say that, but I hope they believe it. If there’s any hope of breaking the cycle of combat vs. customer service, it’s dealing with this type of issue directly. The airlines are customer service businesses. Even though the customer’s behavior is escalating the situation, the agent has a role to play. They need to help the customer, even if they’re delivering bad news. Maybe the first fee was right, maybe it was wrong. It really doesn’t matter. My guess is there was considerable back and forth before the video we watched. The situation kept escalating.
It’s hard to tell whether this was an issue of empowerment or behavior. Did the employee have the authority to propose a solution? If not, should they? Did the company prepare her for a customer filming them? No doubt she would have been better off excusing herself and getting a manager. United certainly would have been.
The Final Two Pennies
This won’t be the last story about a conflict between airline employees and customers. Customers are upset. In a lot of ways, they have a right to be. They don’t deserve to be treated poorly. That customer wasn’t helping their situation. But, canceling his ticket was a huge escalation to the situation. Whatever comes next is significantly more painful than many alternatives.
United Airlines will pay a price for this video. The question is whether they’ll get what they paid for, and learn a lesson on how to engage their front-line employees. They need to prepare them to properly deal with an increasingly belligerent customer base. And, they need to remove those employees who aren’t prepared.
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