The Case for Customer Service

With the United Airlines debacle fresh on peoples’ minds, it seems natural to write about customer service…

Everyone is wondering, how can employees and management stray so far away from basic customer service that dragging a paying customer out of their seat can even happen?  Personally, I feel with our focus on technology we have increasingly removed ourselves from the human element of business.

Think of this… The man dragged from the plane was selected by a computer based on an algorithm. This removes the element of humanity from the initial decision.  Employees then simply “act out” what the computer and their training manual told them to do.

on the planeAnd that was the big mistake; they didn’t treat him as a human.  They treated him as a number.  A seat number, ticket number, price paid number, whatever number it was, he was just a number.

I used to manage customer service call centers.  In my eyes, the worst thing one of my employees could do was not connect with the customer and understand their viewpoint.  Was the customer always right?  Heck no.  But, listening and understanding is key!  Treating them with respect and humanity is first.

Here are my thoughts on the top 4 customer service musts:

  1. Listen first.  Act second.
  2. Always acknowledge the legitimacy of their viewpoint.  You don’t have to say “you are right”, but at least with an honest tone, “I understand”.
  3. Break the rules!  That’s right, break them.  Really, with the exception of safety rules, who cares?  Let the customer know you are making an exception and that you can’t always do this.  Just keep notes on what you’ve done for customers in case you get the errant one or two that take advantage of situations.
  4. A paying customer is worth keeping.  It doesn’t matter if they paid full price or got a discount.  It’s more expensive to find new customers than keep an existing one.  Go out of your way to make them feel special.  Use their names, chat with them, bring the human element back into big business.

The doctor has been vilified by United because of his behavior, which was rather dramatic prior to being knocked out.  But, was he wrong for reacting to their lack of listening skills?  If it was so important for the United employees to get to Louisville to staff flights, why was it not equally important for this doctor to see his Monday morning patients?  They were treating him like a “number” and he was not happy about it.  Either way, multiple lives were affected… patients and flyers. Personal accounts from other passengers attest to the staffs’ disassociated attitude and belligerent tone.  There was no empathy or concern for the “volunteers” who had to be removed, just a “doing our job” mentality.

When we get down to it, United had every legal right to ask people to get off the plane.  What is disturbing is they dehumanized the process and didn’t think through the consequences.

As we now know, there were potentially several solutions to the United situation.

1)  Offer more money incentives until they got the number of volunteers needed.  Per federal regulations they could have gone as high as $1350.  They had only offered $800.

2)  Have the computer select more passengers then needed.  Don’t announce to everyone what you are doing, just have personal conversations with the selected fliers.  Don’t stand above them demanding they disembark.  Crouch to eye level and talk to them as equals.  Apologize for the inconvenience and find out what it would take to have them wait for the next flight.

3)  Put the bumped customers on another airline if they needed to get back sooner than the next United flight allowed.

Sadly, anything would have been better than singling out seated customers and eventually having security drag one, bleeding and limp off the plane.