Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Marketing Musings: United, It's The Service Stupid

What are United Airlines missing these days? Nah, I don’t mean seats that actually have cushioning, food that you can eat (in First Class) or flights that are not cancelled, I am talking about hospitality. The raw basics of dealing with paying customers in a way that has proven over time to attract, retain and generally delight them. Now an enterprise as large as United is always going to make mistakes and have things just go plain wrong, but the way they deal with these problems has descended to a point where it is barely recognizable as customer service.
Turning again to Danny Meyer’s book Setting the Table, he gives us “Five A’s for Effectively Addressing Mistakes”. Let’s take a look:
  • Awareness – Many mistakes go unaddressed because no one is even aware they have happened. If you’re not aware, you’re nowhere.
  • Acknowledgement – “Our server had an accident, and we are going to prepare a new plate for you as quickly as possible:
  • Apology – “I am sorry this happened to you.” Alibis are not one fo the Five A’s. It is not appropriate or useful to make excuses (“We’re short staffed.”)
  • Action – “Please enjoy this for now. We’ll have your fresh order out in just a few minutes.” Say what you are going to do to make amends and follow through.
  • Additional Generosity – “Unless the mistake has something to do with slow timing, I would have my staff send out something additional…Some more serious mistakes warrant a complimentary dish or meal.

Now let’s run United “customer service” through the Five A’s:

  • Awareness – with fewer staff and an attitude of “you get what you pay for” most staff are not actively seeking to fulfill on a promise of hospitality. Doing the minimum has become the norm which means there are very few opportunities even discovered to delight customers.
  • Acknowledgement – following on from awareness, you can’t acknowledge what you don’t know about.
  • Apology – whilst canned apologies are the norm, excuses are rife. There is a reason behind everything but it is never a personal apology that customers receive.
  • Action – without any provisions, coupons for discounts on food, beverage or flights, or other “we messed up “ rewards United staff are simply not empowered to take any action. A broken seat? Sorry, there are no other spare seats and nothing else we can do for you.
  • Additional Generosity – unless it’s due to United overbooking a flight, I have not seen an act of outbound generosity in many years.
But United are still recovering from bankruptcy I hear you say…that is true and the organization itself is undergoing a massive shift. But when it is all said and done, customer service is what keeps people coming back and United need to hire a VP from Danny Meyer’s restaurant group before it’s all too late...

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