Zero One: United Airlines Puts Customer Experience to the Test Thinkstock

Zero One: United Airlines Puts Customer Experience to the Test

Thanks to mobile cameras and social networks, customers wield tremendous power over who they should be giving their money to and how they want to be treated – which United is learning the hard way.

Flying the friendly skies might get you bashed in the face – that is, if you’re on a United Airlines plane. This is the difference between what a company says it does, as in, a customer-centric culture, and what it does, as in, dollars before decency.

Systems integrator and consulting giant Dimension Data shined a light on this uncomfortable truth in its 2017 Global Customer Experience Report: Four out of five companies say customer experience is a competitive differentiator, with seven in 10 citing customer experience as the most important strategic performance measure. Yet only 13 percent of companies scored their customer experience delivery a 9 or 10.

Along these lines, Gartner says nine out of 10 companies will compete on the basis of customer experience, not lower prices and product features, this year.

Today’s customer experience rallying cry is a byproduct of our digital culture. Thanks to ubiquitous mobile cameras and the social network megaphone, customers wield tremendous power over who they should be giving their money to and, critically, how they want to be treated – which United is learning the hard way.

Related: Zero One: Winning the Customer Experience Battle

On Sunday, a United passenger sitting on a packed plane at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport bound for Louisville, Ky., was forcibly removed after refusing to give up his seat for a United employee on standby. The employee, who was scheduled to work a shift the next morning, took precedence over a paying customer.

A nearby passenger recorded the incident on his mobile phone, and the video ended up on Twitter and Facebook. Within hours, public outrage ensued, consumers called for a boycott, comedians mocked the airline, and a PR crisis expert described the incident as “brand genocide.” The company’s stock fell a couple of points today.

Ironically, United claims to be a champion of the customer experience. Its award-winning mobile app keeps passengers in the know about their flights. In February, as part of its digital transformation strategy, United joined the IBM MobileFirst for iOS project to build apps for customer-facing employees. Flight attendants will have greater visibility into customers with connecting flights, United says, and customer service agents will be able to move about the concourse assisting customers.

“We want to put our employees in a position to deliver exceptional service at every step of the travel experience,” Jason Birnbaum, vice president of operations technology at United, said in a press release.

Birnbaum’s statement sounds hollow and disingenuous in light of recent events.

Customer experience experts say a customer-centric culture must come from the top, not tech and marketing departments. That is, the CEO must mandate a customer-first policy and give line-of-business executives, the new shot-callers in tech, the freedom to upend old processes.

From this perspective, however, it’s clear where United stands.

On Monday, United Continental CEO Oscar Munoz sent an email to employees describing the passenger as “disruptive and belligerent.” He said crew members “were left with no choice but to call Chicago Aviation Security Officers to assist in removing the customer from the flight,” adding, “I emphatically stand behind all of you.” (The email was obtained by CNBC.)

Related: 2017 Salary Guide: 16 Hottest Digital Transformation Skills

This isn’t the first time United found itself in turbulent winds, where marketing messages collide with reality. Last month, United barred two teenage girls from boarding a flight. Why? They were wearing leggings deemed inappropriate by a gate agent. A passenger reported the incident on Twitter, public anger erupted, and United decided to stand behind its gate agent’s decision.

United could have learned a valuable lesson about bad optics viewed through the magnifying lens of social networks. Instead, the company and its CEO again showed where their true loyalties lie. While the airline will surely survive this latest storm, its brand won’t come out unscathed.

At least for now, marketing messages about putting the customer first and prioritizing the customer experience will fall on deaf ears.

Based in Silicon Valley, Tom Kaneshige writes the Zero One blog covering digital transformation, AI, marketing tech and the Internet of Things for line-of-business executives. He is eager to hear how the customer experience is impacting your business. You can reach him at [email protected]  

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