United’s Two-Fold Failure

Two specific failures led to the incident. United failed on two fronts: policy and culture.
04/14/2017 03:22 am ET Updated Apr 14, 2017

Time to read: 3 minutes

In case you just returned from a week long hike with no cell service, United Airlines overbooked a flight Sunday afternoon and attempted to bump four customers from a flight involuntarily. When one of the four, Dr. David Dao, refused to deplane, United employees called security and had him forcibly removed from the plane.

Cue the justifiable social media outrage, the ham-fisted semi-apology, the Orwellian doublespeak, and United appears to be in a full-fledged brand doom loop.

There will be multiple case studies on how poorly this incident was handled from decision making to the PR response. Oscar Muñoz certainly has his work cut out for him.

Outside of the response, two specific failures led to the incident. United failed on two fronts: policy and culture.

The Policy Failure

The first was its policy. As the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal pointed out on Wednesday, there is a simple market-based solution to the need to bump overbooked passengers. It’s called an auction.

My immediate reaction after hearing this story was to wonder aloud how much United, in hindsight, would have been willing to pay Dr. Dao or any other passenger to give up their seat. Now we know since United is promising refunds to all passengers on the flight in a rather expensive bid to buy some goodwill.

Companies no longer, if they ever really did, control their brands. The only thing a company controls now is the quality of the product and service they provide. As soon as the product leaves the factory or the service has been rendered, the impression and brand value reside with the client or customer. One can argue that this control has always been with the consumer and that the amplification effect of social media and the ubiquitous video-enabled smartphone has merely made it clearer to everyone.

The lesson here is that policies focused on cost control at the expense of customer satisfaction will continue to erode the brand promise and value every time they are in conflict. Where in your company are your policies and procedures prioritizing cost-control over customer experience? Now’s the time to address them, not after a catastrophic failure and the resulting media frenzy.

The Culture Failure

The culture failure within United also has its root in the lack of focus on delivering a customer-centric experience. Was there no individual on the United team that realized the explosive nature of the situation until it was too late? Was there no United employee that saw Dr. Dao as a customer first instead of as an impediment to getting the plane in the air? Airplane pilots have an immense amount of authority to make an on-the-spot call and reroute a plane for the safety of the passengers with no expense spared. Why isn’t that same pilot given the authority to increase the compensation until a passenger self-identified who was willing to give up their seat voluntarily?

Why did not one employee of United step up to protect their customer and the reputation of the airline? Because they would not only not have been rewarded for it, they would probably have been disciplined for operating outside their authority.

The lesson here is that if you build a culture that rewards results over correct behaviors and rule-following over innovation, you’ll end up with disengaged employees that see and treat the customer as if they were the problem.

This unfortunate and expensive incident was preventable on both fronts independently. If a better policy had been in place some unknown passenger would have happily spent another evening in Chicago several hundred dollars richer, and it would have never made the news. If a better culture had been in place, some employee would have confidently overridden the policy to ensure that no one had to be physically removed from the plane. Either one would have been enough that we would have never known of the situation.

Where are your policies and culture not in alignment? Are you waiting for a wake-up call like United, or are you actively working to align them now?

Bill Sanders helps leaders and organizations adapt, grow and thrive in rapidly changing environments. He is Principal and Sr. Consultant with Roebling Strauss, a operational strategy consultancy that specializes in delivering dramatic improvements in organizational effectiveness, Lead Link of the Finance Circle for Great Work Cultures, a community dedicated to creating a new norm for work cultures that optimize worker effectiveness and human happiness, and a C-Suite Advisor for the C-Suite Network, the world’s most trusted network of C-Suite leaders.

Connect with Bill on twitter at @technacea.

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