A Tale of Two Airlines
In This Issue
This has been a bad month for United Airlines. After making news for having a paying customer dragged off a plane, bloody and unconscious, for refusing to accept $800 to take a later flight, another slightly-less-horrible story emerged of a United first-class customer who was threatened with handcuffs if he didn't give up his seat to a "higher priority" first class passenger.
It's no surprise these stories went viral. They've got everything: giant faceless corporation beating up its customers (literally!), tales of woe about how unpleasant air travel has become, an astonishingly tone-deaf non-apology. At least United didn't also kick puppies and kittens out of spite.
But there's another side to this story, one with some important lessons for Customer Experience. Because at the exact same time United was digging itself furiously into a PR hole, Delta managed to score some positive press when a customer wrote about getting paid $11,000 not to fly in the middle of Delta's own system-wide scheduling fiasco.
On paper this should have been a terrible month for Delta, too, since the airline cancelled thousands of flights after severe weather rolled through Atlanta. And there were certainly stories out there about customers struggling to get home and chaos in airports. So why is it United that lost a billion dollars in market value and not Delta?
The answer lies in an interesting pair of statistics: among the four largest airlines, Delta overbooks the most. But Delta, in contrast to its competitors, almost never bumps passengers involuntarily. Instead, Delta tries harder to get passengers to give up their seats willingly in exchange for compensation.
That's how a family was able to score $11,000 by negotiating with Delta for not flying. Delta empowers its staff to offer more compensation in exchange for customers willingly freeing up seats.
Meanwhile United apparently decided to draw the line at $800. When nobody was willing to accept that to give up their seat, they had left themselves no option but to remove already-seated passengers from the plane, by force if necessary. In hindsight, United probably wishes they had been a little more flexible and offered more money. And indeed, United has since changed its policies to give customers a lot more money if they voluntarily give up their seats.
There's two CX lessons Delta understood but United had to learn the hard way. First, sometimes it's better to spend a little more money upfront to keep customers happy and avoid bad publicity. That's obvious.
Second, and more important, Delta understands that there is a segment of their customer base who likes making deals, customers who think about overbooked flights with anticipation, not dread, since they see an opportunity to score cash and free travel. Customers who get so excited about getting paid $11,000 to cancel a family vacation that they write articles about how they did it.
The accountants will probably say that Delta paid way too much to free up six seats total (from a family of three who cancelled a round-trip). That's almost $2,000 per seat, way more than the amount Delta would have been legally required to pay for involuntarily bumping those passengers. But what the purely financial analysis doesn't take into account is the fact that people hate being bumped involuntarily. There's a cost associated with forcing a customer to give up his seat against his will.
Usually that cost is hard to quantify, but this week it because large and obvious. Don't fall into the trap of ignoring the hidden cost of bad customer experience.
One of the reasons we do customer feedback is because customers have a different view of a company than the company has of itself. Getting that outside perspective is important not only because you want to please your customers. It's also often the case that customers see inside the company's own internal blind spots.
It's common for companies to have lots of internal moving parts that have some friction between them. This is especially true when the company has been around a long time, or has grown through multiple acquisitions. There can be very complicated multilayered processes to help all the pieces work together, and when thing go well all of this should be invisible to the customer.
But the more complicated the processes and organization, the more likely it will be that there will be gaps. That's where getting the outside view can be extremely helpful.
Because chances are if you have gaps in your processes, there's customers falling into it. They may not understand what exactly is going wrong, but they will definitely notice that they aren't getting the level of service they expect. Maybe calls aren't being returned, or paperwork is getting lost, or customers are getting incorrect invoices. But whatever the situation, the customers know that their expectations aren't being met.
Chances are that any process issues like this are relatively rare, because if they were common they would have been noticed and fixed.
(If problems like this are common, then you might have a completely different set of issues like systemic mismanagement or even fraud. Wells Fargo probably had lots of customer complaints about fraudulent accounts, but senior leadership had a strong incentive to ignore them.)
Just because a problem is rare doesn't make it any less important to the customer who experiences it. And some of those process gaps can be very expensive in terms of added customer service cost, lost business, and even legal expenses if the situation is bad enough.
Fortunately, it's not hard to bring the customer's perspective into your organization to shine a spotlight on your blind spots:
- Treat every customer complaint as though it might be the tip of a larger iceberg. Most of the time this won't be the case, but always ask yourself whether it could be.
- Assume that for every customer who tells you about a bad experience, there are ten others who had a similar experience but stayed silent. This is going to be true more often than not, and will help put what may seem like isolated incidents into perspective.
- Understand that your internal processes and metrics aren't giving you the whole picture. Gaps exist precisely because your internal view of the customer's experience isn't giving you the whole picture. Don't accept a "nothing went wrong" conclusion until you know exactly why the customer's view is different from yours.
- And as a corollary, don't conclude that the customer is wrong or trying to cheat you until you've rules out every other reasonable explanation. There are some customers who will try to get something they don't deserve, but it's too easy to use that as an excuse for ignoring a bigger issue inside the company.
The key is to remember that there are two sides to every story, and two views of every company. Often we're blind to the problems inside our own organization, maybe because we've become habituated to them, or maybe because they don't seem as important as they should be. Getting the customer's view can help see gaps that live in your blind spots.