Before It Botched Social Media, United Blew Customer Service


Earlier this month when I wrote about United Airlines' response to the Sons of Maxwell song "United Breaks Guitars," which had become a huge viral hit after the band posted it on YouTube, I focused on United's social media shortcomings.


It's never been a good idea to ignore hacked-off customers. It's an especially bad one now that they can air their grievances on YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and other social channels. Yet that's exactly what United chose to do even after lead singer Dave Carroll told them of his plans to write songs chronicling his frustrating efforts to get compensation for his guitar, create videos and post them on YouTube.


United employed a strategy called "cost externalization," by trying to offload the cost of damages to Carroll. Bad move, writes David Armistead of Social Web Strategies:


It's an old-economy strategy that only works in a world of top-down hierarchical relationships. In the new network world, where everyone has equal access at almost no cost to the ears of everyone interested to listen, the cost externalization' strategy is gradually falling apart. And in this case it failed badly.


United had customer-service problems long before its clumsy handling of Carroll's guitar and then his viral video, of course. I like Shaun Rein's three customer-service lessons that can be learned from United's missteps, included in a Forbes column. They are:


  • Go beyond simple satisfaction to create brand loyalty. Unlike hotel chains Starwood and Marriott, which are adding additional services for their most loyal customers, United is shrinking its frequent-flier benefits. Yet his company's research shows the top reason folks regularly fly United is because they've accumulated points in the airline's Star Alliance loyalty program, "Why would United want to disenfranchise its most loyal customers?" writes Rein.
  • Don't forget your company's purpose. United has forgotten that, for many travelers, the airline is selling dreams and memories rather than simple transportation from Point A to Point B, says Rein. He offers Disney as an example of a company that successfully sells experience and trains all employees to "have the pride to sell an emotional connection."
  • Don't neglect employee morale. Unhappy employees translate into terrible customer service. With the current economy, few companies can get away without laying off employees and/or cutting pay or benefits, but these moves must be made with respect and effective communication to the work force. "Every company everywhere must have an effective strategy for ensuring that its remaining employees don't lose hope or happiness, just as it must maintain its focus on creating brand loyalty," writes Rein.


Several of Rein's opinions were echoed by Strativity Group founder Lior Arussy when I interviewed him earlier this month. In an age of increasingly commoditized products, the most successful companies will differentiate themselves on service, he told me. When I asked him why so many companies seemed to focus only on removing sources of customer dissatisfaction rather than creating a differentiating experience, he said some companies simply worked in phases and eliminated problems before innovating, others had a basic misunderstanding of customer experience, and a third group used the wrong tools. Of the latter group, Arussy explained:


For some companies, it's about removing obstacles and straightening the process as opposed to creating surprising innovations that will delight customers and create a differentiator. This is a typical leftover of the Six Sigma era. In that era, you were just thinking about meeting expectations. You don't think about going above and beyond. You don't think about emotional engagement. None of this is even in the vocabulary. These companies are using certain tools for a job for which they are not designed.