Based on what we are reading in the news lately, some United gate agents and flight attendants need to learn how to have empathy for their customers.
I'm not basing this assertion simply from the most recent United incident regarding the doctor being physically and violently removed from his flight. (Well, ok, it is the spark that got this blog post written.) There are many issues around what happened, especially around America's acceptance of violence, customers not trusting United anymore, and the outrage of customers in China for discrimination.
Here are some other examples about United's lack of empathy and compassion from recent weeks that have made the news:
- Threat to remove a first class, full-fare passenger in cuffs, if they have no "choice." Geoff Fearns, 59, president of TriPacific Capital Advisors, an Irvine investment firm that handles more than half a billion dollars in real estate holdings on behalf of public pension funds was on a business trip. He had to return from a conference in Hawaii and paid about $1,000 for a full-fare, first-class ticket to Los Angeles. He was on the plane, settling into the flight experience with a glass of OJ, when he was told that they had to change planes for the flight, it was overbooked, and he had to get off the flight or they would put him in cuffs if he didn't comply.
- Professional attire for teens. In recent weeks, some girls were thrown off a United flight for wearing inappropriate clothing. Sure, they were on a United family pass and they needed to wear appropriate clothing. I understand adults not wearing spandex, lycra, exercise clothes, dirty clothes, offensive words on t-shirts - that's just not appropriate in general. Well, spandex and lycra could be ok for travel. It's like traveling in jammies. But either way - these were teens. I'm not sure how many teens are professionals and observe casual Fridays. Sure, it's a free ticket from United. But at the same time, this is a loosey-goosey policy that is being defined by on-the-ground United representatives.
I'm sure there are more stories that never made it past friends and families.
The disturbing trend that's emerging from these stories: employees at United at the gate are making decisions that are based on policy that benefits the company - not the customer.
As business professor, Julia Underwood from Azusa Pacific University said in an LA Times article, “They’re so locked into their policies, there’s no room for empathy,” she said.
The CEO is standing by his employees at some level because, well, leaders support their teams, even if they are wrong. It's about the process, not the people. (In this case, I think the people are part of it...they aren't happy employees.) In an ideal world, the customer should be right, but you can't throw an employee under the bus. Everyone needs to win and there are no winners to be had here.
There is the spirit of the law and the letter of the law when it comes to policies. It seems that United is falling to the letter of the law, which is always a great way to justify a decision that benefits a company and distresses a customer. The employees and CEO are hiding behind policies so they don't feel so guilty about what they are doing to their customers, and in the end, their business.
(They really are trashing their business. The stock price proved that.)
Justification is a sign that contempt is present
Looking at how these United agents are treating their customers, it seems that they are exhibiting contempt.
- Did they really need to take police action on a doctor who needed to perform an important surgery the next morning?
- Did they really need to boot a full paying customer to another flight with no reward?
- Did they really need to make a teen change to professional attire (even if it is a United company perk, these are still customers with a perception of the brand)?
These customers weren't just inconvenienced; they were objectified. They were ordered to do something because it made the lives of the United employees easier or made United look good. The policy was a cover to complete an immediate task, not to make a happy customer.
- The doctor was removed because the crew wanted to have an on-time departure
- The investor was told to get off the flight because the crew didn't want to have to search for another solution - it's easier to bump a passenger than to make it work
- The teens were told to change because they were kids, and the gate agent felt their attire was inappropriate
It seems that some United employees have forgotten that customers pay their bills. Without customers, these agents wouldn't have a paycheck, a job, or be in a company. (The CEO may want to remember this too!) Customers are what create demand for seats. Customers keep United in business.
What would have been a more customer-centric, empathetic response to the doctor who was pulled off the flight?
- Gate agents shouldn't have allowed anyone to board the plane until seating issues were resolved (that was the problem right there - once a customer is seated, it has to be a good reason why they need to be removed from the flight. $800 isn't enough for someone to leave an already boarded plane.)
- They should have found people who were willing to leave, give them a tremendous reward and maybe pay for them to take a Southwest flight to make the destination on-time. There has to be a benefit to get up and leave a plane (as well as already packed luggage on the plane)
- They should seat the United employees that were causing the bump on a Southwest flight. Why make a paying customer move for an employee? That's a little outrageous. No company does that
- Upgrade people to the next flight (have them ride first class). What ever happened to that perk?
I think most people know I'm a huge fan of Virgin America, and it's mainly because they would have handled this differently. And they did on a flight I was on - and I was impacted. I wasn't removed from a plane and I didn't make the 6 o'clock news. In fact, they upgraded me to first class. They needed my seat for an upgrade for another passenger to leave his seat to make room for an overbooked passenger. Virgin America chose to make my day better by giving me the gift of a larger seat, a wonderful free meal, and a quieter flight area.
That's why I'm loyal to Virgin America.
I wonder how much loyalty will exist with United after all is said and done? I doubt much, unless their employees are trained to have empathy for their customers.
(And if anyone in United is reading this, here's my sales pitch: I offer a service that can help. Don't be afraid to encourage your staff to feel empathy. Let me help!)