As a marketing, branding and public relations practitioner since 1990s, I also wear another even earlier hat, that of customer service and process quality (since 1980s). What can the recent United Airlines incident benefit from an enlightened service approach?

In case you haven’t read anything recently, there was a public uproar worldwide, from airlines, travelers, marketing and PR proponents, with how UA handled its recent flight 3411 from Chicago to Louisville.

To help you recap, this video shows you why the social media sphere went totally flabbergasted. The flight was first thought to be “oversold” although it was later found out that the 4 seats needed were for the airline’s own employees, which complicated the incident. The passenger was injured, including losing two front teeth, a broken nose, and concussion. An opinion piece by law professor Jens David Ohlin pointed out some interesting perspectives about the legality of the incident, although there are dissenting views, although it is interesting to read the airlines’ own “Contract of Carriage” under Rule 25 (Google it). The incident was exacerbated by the airline’s leader through a series of PR and/or social media blunders, who ironically was a recent winner in “communications”.

But we are not here to discuss laws, policies, regulations, and all those legalese that cloud the facts of the incident:

  • A passenger who bought a ticket, passed through checks, sat down in his assigned seat, was then subsequently dragged out of the planed, injured.
  • The public uproar over this and the earlier “leggings” incident across the social media.
  • And fundamentally, the passenger in question, and certainly many passengers past who found out about the incident, were perturbed and disturbed to find out that such an incident actually happened.

Rather than debate ad infinitum about legalese and PR, let us focus on customer service delivery and how to be an enlightened service provider so that any airline or company can simply serve customers well.

When you look in a mirror, what do you see?

From a psychological standpoint, how do we view people, whether they are our employees or our customers? How do we view ourselves?

Do we view ourselves and others in an “I am OK, they are OK” scenario? If so, your organization has a balanced perspective about people and you will generally treat yourself, and all others respectfully and humanely.

Or do we view the world as “I am OK, they are NOT OK”, “I am NOT OK, they are NOT OK” scenarios? If so, you have a troubled organization.

In short, how you FIRST view yourself, will invariably affect how you view other people. If you have a balanced personality with humility and self-respect, you will also view others with humility and respect, and invariably you will treat other people well.

It is not about employees only

A service delivery process is made up of 3 components:

  • People
  • Environment
  • Procedures

In the EU, even though overbooking is permitted, air passenger rule 261/2004 covers such involuntary denied boarding cases, with compensation. Some EU airlines do away with overbooking altogether. So the macro environment, systems and procedures play a large part, and refinements to environments are always important.

If you have a toxic environment (which includes your systems) and lousy procedures, you can certainly imagine your people to become automatons and demoralized, as nothing works for them, and certainly nothing will work for your customers.

Therefore, if you have an effective and humane environment with good UX (user experience) and UI (user interface), and sensible and well thought out procedures (productive, efficient, and friendly), your employees will enjoy working and in turn, will easily serve your customers well.

Taking an enlightened service approach

Service Quality - The Enlightened Approach, a book by Seamus Phan, customer service pioneer and expert

Customer Service book, 1994

When I developed the Enlightened Service Providers (ESP©) Program in the late 1980s, one component within the program which was adapted for a million-dollar training project for a national aviation services company and numerous other industrial companies, was the Discrepancy Interview System™ (DIS), with 15 Critical Service Indicators applicable to most service operations.

Out of the 15 Critical Service Indicators, the employees of the recent airline incident totally failed at least a few, namely (1) Communication, (2) Flexibility, (3) Impact, (4) Initiative, (5) Judgment, (6) Situational Analysis, and (7) Work Standards.

How often do you hear service providers or even leaders say things like “handling difficult customers” or “handling difficult employees”? In the UA scenario, the customer yanked off the plane was deemed so and dragged off most unceremoniously.

But, NOBODY is difficult. The reality is that we make situations difficult for our employees and in turn, our customers. How often do you see things in your customers’ perspectives? In the UA scenario, can you, as a leader, imagine YOURSELF dragged off unconscious, bloodied and without dignity? Would you imagine YOURSELF having paid in full for a service and then not having received the service, still ridiculed? It is certainly unimaginable. Put yourself, as a leader, and an employee (from managers to frontline), in the shoes of your PAYING customer, and try to imagine if YOU were treated the same way. This is not about branding. This is not about PR. This is not about procedures. This is about how you FEEL as a human being, about how you FEEL you deserve to be treated with dignity, about how you FEEL, pure and simple.

Communication – Do you communicate well with your employees about how best to serve customers? Do you understand what communication means? Do your employees communicate with paying customers well? Communication is NOT about simply regurgitating information from a manual verbatim and not straying from the print. Good communication is about empathy, humility and respect.

Flexibility – Do you empower your employees so that they have sufficient and sensible latitude to serve customers well beyond their expectations? Do you offer flexibility to customers so that they are better served, in the modern context of “personalization”?

Impact – Do you create a positive impact in your employees who in turn, can create a positive impact on your paying customers? Or are you happy to be a laggard with a “me too” corporate culture and a “me too” customer service culture?

Initiative – Do you hire and nurture employees who are people who are courageous in taking initiative, becoming creative and innovative to propel your company forward? Or are you happy with employees who simply nod and say “yes” to everything you say?

Judgment – Do you create a service and delivery culture that allows employees to make good judgment calls that will go towards persuading prospects to become customers, and to compel customers to become loyal customers and even fans and advocates? In the social media world we live in today where everyone has a smartphone in their pocket, be smart about leveraging customer loyalty to help your business.

Situational analysis – Every situation demands a smart and wise analysis, and who better than your frontline employees who are CLOSEST to your paying customers to know what to do? Hire the best people to be closest to your paying customers, and allow them to analyze every situation that will yield the best outcomes for your paying customers.

Work standards – Do you hire and nurture employees who will always step up to perform above and beyond what their contract demands? I frequently travel to Japan for work and for leisure, and always marvel at how every frontline employee I have met, will always go above and beyond their jobs to help a customer, from cabbies, to retail shop assistants, to airline employees, to business office employees. It is a national service culture that always take pride in giving only the very best customer service. They are proud of their service, and customers appreciate it resoundingly.

How to succeed in customer service

Many customer service training programs, including those at very large companies (such as airlines), tend to focus on trying to modify frontline employee “behavior” with the hope that employees will serve customers well.

However, most of such training programs are motivational in nature and since behavior and personalities can never change, such motivational programs can only have short-term results. People do not change. You have to inspire people akin to how the national service culture of Japan is, to inspire people to have pride in their jobs, to have self-respect and humility, and in turn, see customers and peers as people deserving of respect and love.

Many service lapses are not even really due to frontline employees, but are due to a toxic corporate environment with dysfunctional or hampering systems and procedures.

A leader who is serious about improving the customer service culture of the company may do better by improving the corporate environment, systems and procedures so that these critical components do not cause obstacles in the path of frontline employees when providing service. Fix the backend, and you have a much better opportunity for good service. And don’t relegate corporate culture to some meaningless plaque on the front hall of your office, or some meandering “pep talk” every month. Be the leader with humility and respect for everyone, and all your people will follow.