United Airlines Should’ve Followed JetBlue’s lesson

Actions speak louder than words. We know a company is telling the truth by their history of promise keeping.

The focus should be less about immediate damage control and more about building a deep reservoir of trust. There will always be hiccups. Customer service is all about relationships, and to err is human. Customers do not expect a company to be perfect; they do, however, expect the company to care—especially when service fails to deliver what was promised.

With that deep reservoir of trust, customers are more apt to give a company a wider berth when service breakdowns occur and they attempt to turn an oops into an opportunity. Service recovery, after all, is about the management of betrayed trust.

Look at the rapid return to greatness JetBlue experienced after the airline’s incident on the tarmac 10 years ago. JetBlue was on the Businessweek Customer Service Elite list in 2008, the year after the February 2007 incident. It was all driven by great service recovery on top of a long-earned foundation of customer trust.

United Airlines made headlines when Dave Carroll’s “United Breaks Guitars” YouTube video went viral (more than 17M views). In January, a computer glitch caused United to ground all domestic flights for two hours. Last year Bloomberg Businessweek had as their cover story “United’s Quest to Be Less Awful.”

Promise keeping with customers begins with leadership’s focus on creating and nurturing customer-centric culture.

The United Airlines CEO’s first response to the recent incident on the Chicago-Louisville flight was to defend United employees who were following United’s policy. The 2007 JetBlue CEO’s first response was to apologize to passengers who were impacted by being stranded on the tarmac for many hours.

United’s CEO’s second response was to promise to get different Chicago airport police and to imply the passenger was belligerent. JetBlue CEO’s second response was to go to work learning about the root cause of the hiccup in order to prevent future occurrences and to create a passenger bill of rights.

As long as the leadership instinct is about damage control to avoid potential litigation rather than doing what is right and fair for customers, passengers (and customers of rental car company, hotels, etc.) will be slow to trust and harbor the sentiment reflected in the adage: “In God we trust; all others pay cash!”

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