What customer service lessons can be learned from United Airlines?

Apr 24, 2017

Through a special arrangement, what follows is a summary of an article from Retail Paradox, RSR Research’s weekly analysis on emerging issues facing retailers, presented here for discussion.

By now we’ve all seen the horrific video of a passenger, David Dao, being hauled from his seat on a United Airlines flight by airport security because he refused to give up that seat to an airline employee. This form of institutionalized rudeness is not new to the airline. I’ve flown on United once in the past decade and experienced so much rudeness from a flight attendant on that flight I vowed never to fly it again. I made that vow before Dr. Dao’s experience. At least two of my partners have done the same.

It seems that in the U.S., the stunning mass of mergers and acquisitions across the airline industry have left consumers with very few options.

Of course, retail isn’t like the airlines. Consumers have many, many options and a lot of them have chosen Amazon.com. They’ve chosen to talk to no one rather than coming to stores and talking to…? That’s the question we have to ask ourselves. What is the “typical” in-store experience and what happens when we hit an outlier like United did? Do our employees know they are expected to go out of their way to help? Or do they just turn their backs and say “Whatever … sorry, can’t help”?

The majority of retailers spend less than 10 hours per year in training existing employees. Training is more than just learning to work the cash register. It also includes working with customers, dealing with difficult people and working through seemingly intractable situations.

Think about the Target data breach back in 2013. Poor handling of that disaster cost a lot of executives their jobs and, frankly, it wasn’t all about data security. It was about the worst corporate response ever.

United will no doubt survive this debacle, albeit without many of my friends or me on their flights. Retailers just don’t have that luxury. We’ve read enough stories about “the death of retail as we know it.” Frankly, I don’t buy that storyline, but until and unless we insure our cultures are customer-friendly, we are at risk.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: To what degree is the in-store service culture the reason many consumers are shifting to buy online? Can the problems be fixed?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"The big issue is lack of empowerment which leads to policies that don't make common sense in practice being acted upon instead of ignored or flagged."
"United knew they required four seats for crew members, so they should have blocked those out first. Reactive polices rarely win."
"I’m not convinced that the in-store service culture (whatever its flaws) is to blame for the rush toward e-tailing."

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34 Comments on "What customer service lessons can be learned from United Airlines?"

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Frank Riso

I do believe that to some degree the in-store service of many retailers is a contributing factor to online buying. However, I think retail does a fairly good job of education and training on customer service as I believe it to be the primary pillar of retailing. I cannot think of a retailer that closed its doors because of poor customer service and it is because of the training that most retailers have in place.

Dick Seesel

Consumers have choices of retailers, just as they (often) have choices of airlines and other service providers. One of the lessons that any customer-facing business ought to take away from the United fiasco is the need to empower employees to look past the policy manual when it’s time to exercise some good judgment. (In the case of United, it would have been easier to seek volunteers for rebooking instead of working from a mandatory list.) Policies are meant to protect a retailer’s assets and to manage risk, but they shouldn’t turn into a roadblock to common sense.

And the second lesson learned: If your company hasn’t learned the power of viral social networking by now, you’d better get your communications act together fast. Above all, don’t blame the consumer for your own missteps.

Lyle Bunn (Ph.D. Hon)

Great points, Dick. The United incident should be a red flag to all brands that brand equity matters and that the empowered consumer is the underpinning of this corporate asset. Social media, online shopping, mobile browsing, showrooming and other elements of modern commerce have more of a negative than positive impact on physical retail, so in the interest of brand equity, retailers must take their capabilities to attract and hold consumer attention to new levels. The tools exist, but inertia in operations is a formidable foe.

Anna Tolmach

This highlights a broader issue in corporate America (whether retail or airlines). A lack of empowerment. Because of corporate policies and stringent punishment for violating them, employees are afraid to use their own judgement over the corporate playbook. But think back to your own life experience. I bet everyone has a story of someone making an exception for you and treating you like a fellow human being that fostered tremendous brand loyalty. The big issue is a lack of empowerment which leads to policies that don’t make common sense in practice being acted upon instead of ignored or flagged.

Cathy Hotka

When I first worked in retail about a hundred years ago the mantra was “the customer is always right.” The 90 percent of retail sales that happen in-store will increasingly be influenced by sales associates and the draw of the store experience. Don’t drag the passenger from the plane, and work WITH store customers to give them what they want.

Phil Masiello

Retailers have taken customers for granted for years. Brick-and-mortar retail is retailer-centric. The consumer is exposed to the products and service standards that the retailer chooses. E-commerce is consumer-centric where the consumer has the power of choice. They will migrate to the sites and companies that take the best care of them.

The disturbing United Airlines video shows the total disregard for the consumer.

Max Goldberg

In-store culture is one reason why consumers are shopping online. Others are convenience and price. Retailers need to create a customer experience that online cannot match. They need to clean up stores, make them less cluttered, manage inventories and ease the buying experience.

Adrian Weidmann
Today’s top story was another airline customer fiasco — this time on an American Airlines flight. A male flight attendant apparently loses his cool with a mother and her two children over a stroller. Really! The fact that this behavior is becoming commonplace is disturbing. Are we becoming so numb to this that we accept it? The mobile phone — more accurately it should be called a pocket video camera — along with the world wide web and social media is bringing these stories to our displays. Frankly, without the video, many of these stories would be hard for me to believe. As Paula notes, the airlines will survive these incidents because we have short memories and we need to travel with limited options. I, for one, find these lapses in judgment, customer service and civility — and the fear of them — to be the single biggest reason why I’m driven to online shopping. I suspect I’m not alone. It seems like you have to advocate for yourself in all aspects of your life… Read more »
Tom Dougherty

It’s not a customer service problem with retail today. It is a question of transparency. Shoppers would prefer to have little interaction with retail employees — not a different experience (a transparent interaction).

How does retail respond to the trend of retail shopping (online) that demands minimal to non-existent contact with the retailer itself?

Thinking we can fix this problem by better training the customer service staff is navel gazing. I wish it weren’t so. But retail HAS changed and the winners will adapt.

Lyle Bunn (Ph.D. Hon)

Customer experience (CX) failed United. The CX function within the enterprise is a relatively new role, emerged from Voice of the Customer and process assessment/improvement programs, CX leadership has got to up their game in service to the brand. The old adage of business is that “smart executives resource your priorities.” Now is that time, as brands are confronted with the full frontal attack of the empowered consumer and extreme competition.

Lee Kent

It’s just so easy to buy online! You can sit/lounge comfortably at home and take your time. Frankly, for me, it has little to do with the store experience as it has to do with the convenience. And when I put on just my consumer hat, do I really think there are problems with the in-store experience or simply that retail has offered me another option that I like better? With my retail hat on, it’s a different story. If the brands don’t do something to distinguish themselves, the consumer will likely shop for best price, best delivery time or whatever floats their boat. If the consumer is going to go to the trouble to travel to a store, find a parking spot, all those hassles, they want and expect a great experience. Brands need to find their stories and create experiences that deliver from top to bottom. Can they fix the problems? Yes!

And that’s my 2 cents.

Ron Margulis
A quick aside — When I’ve conducted media training for executives over the last two decades, I used the Exxon Valdez as an example of how not to do crisis communications. I’m updating my training presentation to replace that with the United fiasco. It’s important to note that I’ll still use J&J’s handling of the Tylenol scares of the 1980s as the right way to handle crisis communications. To the questions raised; ultimately good customer service — in-store or digital — is going to build loyalty. And probably more important, bad customer service — in-store or digital — is going to lead to failure. There are plenty of examples of e-commerce sites failing because of bad customer service or not being able to differentiate themselves from competitors, just like there are plenty of brick-and-mortar retailers failing because of bad customer service or not being able to differentiate themselves from competitors. In every case — in-store or digital — the key is to make the customer the center of the universe at all times and not… Read more »
Kai Clarke

The in-store culture and customer service is not related to the shift in the growth of online buying at all. Amazon and other e-commerce sites have grown from a mixture of availability, ease of use and price. I can get what I want, when I want it, as easy as a mouse click and get the best price? Why would I shop anywhere else? If the consumer wants a different in-store experience there are many competitors for any type of merchandise you are buying. Just go to another store. Online, the choice is also broad and easy. We should also remember that we don’t know the whole story behind the United Airlines debacle.

Bob Phibbs

Bravo Paula! As I wrote in this post last week, Retail Is Not Dead But Stores Are Closing. How To Keep Your Store From Dying, yes stores are closing but it doesn’t have to be you. You will be judged on the person you leave in charge for 15 minutes. The most common complaints of shopping haven’t changed in 20 years, “I can’t find anyone to wait on me,” “No one greeted me,” and “I didn’t feel they even wanted my business.” No app or shiny object will change that — only training. Retail is being brilliant on the basics. That’s not product knowledge — that’s the soft skills of how to engage a customer. I simply ask, “Are you doing everything possible?” For 90 percent of retailers the answer is decidedly, “No, we’re just trying to hold onto our executive jobs.”

Doug Garnett
Doug Garnett
President, Protonik
5 years 2 months ago

The biggest surprise in the United debacle is that none of the individuals worked for those that are blamed. It was a United flight number but a Republic Airline crew on the plane (the report I read was unclear about gate agents). The law enforcement involved was also subcontracted.

So it seems more to show the risk a brand assumes when it doesn’t directly manage the people the public believes represent it.

What’s the lesson for retail? The front line determines satisfaction with your brand so empower them to deliver true customer satisfaction through service — rather than the few superficial things that can be measured with satisfaction surveys.

I do not think dissatisfaction with the store is driving online sales — mostly it’s price and convenience. That said, creating a store where it’s interesting and useful to shop will drastically increase the number of customers, number of visits and the spending on each of those visits.

Brandon Rael
Clearly the writing is on the wall for retailers. While the e-commerce revolution is picking up momentum by the day, the fact remains that approximately 90 percent of retail sales are either influenced or are converted in the brick-and-mortar locations, Without an empowered, educated, motivated, incentivized workforce, how can a retailer expect the team to provide a superior customer experience? The most critical component of a customer service operation is for retailers and other corporations to provide an enhanced “employee experience.” If you win the hearts and minds of your workforce, imagine the level of service they will provide your customers. Along with that, enable and empower the in-store team to do whatever it takes to provide a superior customer experience, then you have a winner. As Jeff Bezos has stated, one of the keys to Amazon’s sustained success and dominance, is their ability to not become slaves to the process. This can be interpreted as treating each and every single customer uniquely, even if it means breaking the process flow to solve a customer… Read more »
J. Peter Deeb

I am not sure that poor retail service is a major reason for more online shopping. Convenience and speed are the main reasons our time-starved society is moving to more online purchases. Having said that, the customer service issue is a two-pronged problem with many industries including the airlines. Training and empowering your people in how to deal with customers is number one. The second issue is more complex when you outsource your service or are forced to rely on other entities, such as airport security, to deal with YOUR customers. This means effective screening and communications with a third party and setting expectations with them and with an outside agency. Good business practices mean being proactive in this area, as United and now maybe American Airlines are discovering the downside of failure in these areas.

Gene Detroyer

In-store service has nothing to do with the growth of online. When in-store service can take care of all my Christmas shopping for my grand kids in an hour, without me leaving my desk, then I will go back in-store. How does the best in-store service service solve my problem when I am low on an office supply and all I have to do is make two clicks on my computer to get the supplies the next day? I was just off on a long (seven-week) business trip. I needed a couple of dress shirts and slacks. I solved the need online in less than 30 minutes. How does great in-store service offer me anything better?

Richard J. George, Ph.D.
There is no doubt that an Amazon experience, devoid of contact with a potentially unknowledgeable or unfriendly in-store associate, has its advantages. However, I am not convinced that most retailers are investing sufficient resources to recruit and prepare their customer-facing staffs. Only providing 10 hours per year in training to do all of the tasks required is insufficient. Ritz-Carlton provides more than 200 hours of initial and on-the-job training to its employees in the first year and 100 hours of training in the following years. In addition, every morning at every Ritz-Carlton, the staff holds a 15-minute “Daily Line-Up” to discuss the plan for the day, talk about special events and important guests and share an inspiring quote. While I am not suggesting this level of investment for retail staff, there is more that can and should be done to delight customers in-store. There is no reason to surrender all this business to Amazon et al. Similarly, stating that your organization is doing a better job that United Airlines is akin to declaring you have… Read more »
Gene Detroyer

It is so ironic that United merged with Continental and threw out all that Continental accomplished with regard to great customer service. United’s CEO and every CEO whose company deals with the public should read “From Worst to First” by Gordon Bethune.

Liz Crawford

I’m not convinced that the in-store service culture (whatever its flaws) is to blame for the rush toward e-tailing. Instead, online retailing is booming because most Millennials prefer to avoid human interaction — when buying anything. Service isn’t the culprit. I believe it’s the sense of personal control and instant gratification that has come from a digital lifestyle that is driving the migration to e-tailing.

Mel Kleiman

The question asked in the headline of this article and the discussion questions are very different questions.

The headline question is, what customer service lesson can we learn from the United Airlines incident?

The lesson was not one of customer service. It is the need to do the following things:

  1. Train your employees on how to deal with difficult customers and still retain the customer;
  2. Empower your employees and expect them to do the right thing, but let them know what the right thing is;
  3. Don’t have dumb rules. (Why not ask your employees what the dumbest rule is that you have?);
  4. Follow the Dilbert formula. 80 percent is hiring and training great employees and 20 percent is leaving them alone and letting them do their job.
W. Frank Dell II
Retailers have worked for years to eliminate the interface between associates and customers. Remember when the checker knew your name? It started with self-service and continues with self-checkout. Amazon is testing a store where only your smartphone interacts with the store. Some in the industry think that if a customer has no interaction with associates nothing can go wrong. I offer Publix and Trader Joe’s as the wining model. In my 30 years of heavy flying I would try United Airlines once a year. Only a few times did they measure up to making them work booking again. A company getting so large with poor customer service can only be achieved by customers only flying once a year and I assume this is the way it is with that airline. The lesson for retail is to be proactive, educate and train associates. If United had never allowed the passenger to board the plane the outcome would have been different. United knew they required four seats for crew members, so they should have blocked those out… Read more »