One of the interesting things about United Airlines' ongoing Bumpgate debacle is how many lessons you can learn from them. It's a masterclass in how to avoid poor PR and how to better serve your customers. Here are three additional lessons that I've seen from how United has handled this and the reaction from each step along the way.
Lesson 1: Apologize. It seems like a simple thing, but too often people are told that it's their fault that something happened to them. Too often that is the case - we constantly make mistakes. At the same time, it doesn't make your customers feel great if you're telling them it's their fault. Acknowledge their needs, say you're sorry and build a connection with them. It goes a lot further than a mealy-mouthed word salad that doesn't seem to do anything other than cover your corporate behind.
Lesson 2: When you put great people in poor systems, the systems win. CEO Oscar Munoz tacitly acknowledged this in an interview with ABC News by saying that employees and supervisors don't have the autonomy to use their common sense. It was even visible with the initial statements from Mr. Munoz, as they sounded like they'd gone through several layers of review that took out any humanity from the statement. They certainly didn't sound like the words of a man who has won awards for his communication skills. Thus, even the CEO can get trapped by poor systems.
Lesson 3: Speed counts. In our day and age, information can travel around the world at an incredible rate. I remember when I was on a flight that got caught in bad weather and had an emergency landing in Denver. We landed at 9 pm Mountain time, I tweeted out an image of my aircraft. By the time we landed in Salt Lake at 3 am Mountain time, it had over 100,000 impressions and I had calls and messages from Good Morning America, the Weather Channel, and CNN. If information moves that fast overnight, it goes twice as fast during business hours. As you respond quickly and effectively to customer service issues, your customers will acknowledge and appreciate those efforts and become more loyal to you.
Ultimately your customers know that you can't do everything right all of the time. What they want is for you to empathize with them when you mess up, quickly solve their problem to the best of your ability, and leave them feeling great.