I debated whether to write about United’s recent issue with a passenger who was “denied boarding” on Flight 3411 from Chicago to Louisville, KY. I have no education on aviation rules and regulations. I am not a consumer advocate. And, most importantly, I wasn’t there. I waited until today to write about it because I figured more details would come to light (and in fact, a few people have already retracted earlier opinions).
But I’m writing about it anyway because I think the story is not about denied boarding, racism, police brutality, personal behavior, or profession. It’s about customer service.
Maybe the customer was belligerent, and maybe the police used excessive force — I don’t think it’s actually relevant to the discussion. It’s hard enough to maintain decorum in a metal tube when no one’s trying to take away your seat. No one likes being told what to do, and police are understandably on edge whenever called to intervene in a tense situation. We hope for better behavior from the public and from law enforcement. Unfortunately, sometimes shit happens.
I still pin the blame on United Airlines, because they could have prevented the whole thing.
United Hosted a Cage Match and Said, “Not Our Fault”
Some of the facts revealed since yesterday:
- United didn’t deny boarding to this customer. He was boarded, and only then did United try to remove him from the plane.
- United didn’t overbook the flight. It decided only later that it needed to relocate some employees so they could operate a different flight.
- United didn’t beat its own customer, but it did call the police.
Ben suggests that United’s reasoning for refusal to transport may even be illegal. Whether or not that’s true, waiting until a customer is on the plane created a much bigger risk than addressing this at the gate. Calling the police created a much bigger risk than simply raising the compensation and asking for a new round of volunteers.
In theory, United has policies in place to prevent the kind of episode that happened yesterday on Flight 3411. I think those policies start to break as soon as you have to call in the police to fix things for you.
What Is Customer Service?
There’s a crucial difference between following policy and doing what’s right. Employees of most firms known for good customer service have significant discretion. For example, I’m reminded of a story about an employee at a hotel who noticed a guest had forgotten his briefcase. It contained important documents for a meeting the next day, so this employee headed straight to the airport, booked a flight, and returned it to the customer. He did all of this without prior approval from his manager.
An extreme example, yes, but the point is that sometimes customer service requires going beyond expectations. It can be something as small as holding a door open for a passenger running to his gate, or exchanging pleasantries on the phone. Importantly, these gestures are not free. Delaying a flight even one minute might have some cascading effect on the rest of the day’s schedule. Chatting with a customer means fewer calls answered each hour.
But does enforcing a schedule mean the employee should hold a stopwatch and slam the door in a customer’s face? Should the employee on the phone be rude and abrupt? No.
We don’t have to go far back to see yet another example where enforcing policy got United Airlines into hot water. When a non-rev passenger was denied boarding for wearing leggings, it created an uproar. Was it because of the leggings? Not really. I argue the real reason is because some agent handling United’s Twitter channel decided the appropriate response was to point to a rule book.
A better response would have been to investigate the situation and then discuss the differences between customer and employee travel, the standards applying to each, and why this policy was created to improve the customer experience. Boring and nuanced and probably not something you can fit into 140 characters — but if Twitter isn’t the right place for a response, the character count should be your first clue.
Customer service is ultimately about discretionary judgement, and I think that’s what is missing most in United’s recent behavior. We have here a few recent instances where employees, and by extension the company, used the wrong judgement. Even if these employees followed the rules, that doesn’t absolve them of responsibility for the consequences.