3 More Lessons to Learn from United Airlines

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3 More Lessons to Learn from United Airlines

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.

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The Parable of the Toilet Seat

I consulted with a CFO who worked in a building that had maintenance problems. Because of the terms of their lease, building maintenance was their company's responsibilities instead of the building owner's 

Due to the low engagement of most staff members, building maintenance work would often “fall” up from the line staff to middle managers and finally land on the desk of a C-level manager who would do the job because it had to be done.

When I asked the C-level executives why they didn’t just pass it back down to someone else to get it done, the consistent response I heard was that they had a culture where line employees would make their life miserable by reporting them to other leadership, whereby they would be tied up in meetings that would take more time and cause more pain than just taking care of the simple janitorial task.

This led to the widespread dropping of all kinds of tasks in their office, from kitchen cleaning duty to handling interpersonal interactions, to, finally, toilet maintenance.

“I was meeting with the Controller in their office for a few minutes and when I got back to my office, I found a toilet seat sitting on the floor. There was no note and nobody had talked to me about it, so I didn’t know what was happening. If it was April Fool’s day, I might have thought that it was a joke. Unfortunately, knowing us, someone probably wanted me to do something about it, but what that something was, I have no idea.”

When I asked them what they did, they told me that they just tossed it in the far corner of their office space. “To date, nobody has said anything to me about it.”

This is indicative of a broken company with a toxic culture. I saw managers who didn’t support each other, staff who weren’t held accountable for the work that needed to be done, and disengaged ownership and leadership. What could be done to save this company?

The Takeaway:

A company needs strong leadership who will not lead by doing menial tasks, but who will instead lead by example and help create accountability. True leadership isn’t shouldering the burden of every single task simply because nobody else will do it, but instead inspiring and guiding people to want to do these tasks for the benefit of everyone.

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Delight Your Customers, Don't Sue Your Competitors

 Swig vs. Sodalicious for all the soda mix-in marbles

Swig vs. Sodalicious for all the soda mix-in marbles

Soda Wars

In a recent article in the New York Times, they shone a light on a brewing battle between two titans of bespoke soda combinations in Utah. Swig was the first company in business, but Sodalicious is a tenacious competitor. Due to this competition, Swig has sued Sodalicious for infringement on trademarks and trade dress including:

  • A logo that is too similar
  • Using the word "dirty" to refer to a soda with a coconut mix-in
  • Serving cold sugar cookies with room-temperature frosting
  • Serving beverages in styrofoam cups

There is anecdotal evidence that this tactic is hurting Swig by making them look like a bully because they're asserting trade dress and trademark issues that are clearly not proprietary. 

If Kevin O'Leary was to talk to Swig on Shark Tank, he would ask them what there is to stop him from starting his own flavored soda business serving cold cookies to crush them like the cockroaches they are. He's right, there's nothing to stop him. What should Swig do?

The Takeaway

When your business is faced with a tenacious competitor, instead of reverting to the courts to protect marginal features that shouldn't be considered trade dress or trademark, double down on serving your customers. Surprise and delight them every day so that they want to return again and again. 

Focus on aspects of your business that may be pain points and spend your time innovating there so that your customers feel compelled to tell their friends and neighbors about your amazing company.

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