Every Parent’s Worst Nightmare: How United’s Culture Failed Its Customers

You’re at home when your phone rings. It’s your child’s summer camp calling to tell you that she never arrived. No one knows where she is.

Make your gut churn? Yes, if you’re a parent — or even if you’re not.

If you were following the news last week, you know that Annie and Perry Klebahn did get that phone call. That’s when they found out that their 10-year-old daughter Phoebe hadn’t gotten off a United Airlines flight to Traverse City, Michigan.  

Here are the highlights of what happened.

Phoebe had been traveling alone. Her parents had paid United a $99 fee for the “unaccompanied minor” service and had every reason to believe that their daughter was in good hands. According to the complaint letter that her parents wrote to United, when they dropped Phoebe off at the San Francisco airport, a United employee put an identifying wristband on her and told her to “only go with someone with a United badge on and that she would be accompanied at all times.” But when Phoebe arrived in Chicago to change planes, no one met her. The little girl reportedly asked flight attendants three times to let her use a phone to call her parents, and they told her to wait. She also asked if someone had called camp to tell them she had missed her flight, and they said they’d take care of it (but then didn’t).

Annie called United customer service in a panic. Her husband also called, using his Premier status customer service line. He eventually got a United employee in Chicago to go find his daughter, but only after appealing to her as a mother (she at first told him that she couldn’t help because she was going off shift). That United employee found Phoebe, who eventually made it to camp. Her bags arrived a few days later.

All told, Phoebe was lost and alone in Chicago’s giant O’Hare airport for just under three hours.

What went so horribly wrong that it caused United to deliver a customer experience that turned into a public relations nightmare?  Lots of things — the series of failures along the Klebahn’s customer journey are sobering in their number. But among them, the most fundamental is a failure of culture, one of the six disciplines practiced by companies that deliver a superior customer experience.

In our new book, Outside In, my co-author Kerry Bodine and I profile companies that excel at the culture discipline. These companies include American Express, Enterprise Rent-A-Car, John Deere Financial, Safelite AutoGlass, and U.S. Cellular. As diverse as they seem, these firms share practices that lead employees to try and do the right thing for customers. And those are exactly the practices that United Airlines must adopt if they want to break the cycle of PR disasters.

Where do you start if you’re United and you need to transform your culture? Here are three suggestions out of the many in our book:

  • Hire the will, train the skill. Screen candidates for customer-centric values as part of the hiring and selection process. Candidates either want to interact with people and help them out or don’t. If they don’t, then don’t hire them. As many companies have found out, you can teach someone how to work the phones or sell your products, but you can’t change their fundamental natures.
  • Create a communal conscience through storytelling. Collect and share stories that illustrate customer experience best practices. When employees regularly hear examples of the things that other employees did to deliver a positive customer experience, they develop an internal compass that points them in the right direction when unexpected situations pop up — even if there’s nothing in the employee manual that tells them step-by-step what to do.
  • Tie raises, bonuses, and promotions to customer-centric behavior. The behavior you reward is the behavior you get. At Enterprise Rent-A-Car, no one with below-average scores on the Enterprise Service Quality index can move up to senior management. Companies ranging from Philips Electronics to Maersk Line, one of the world’s largest container shipping companies, tie employee bonuses to Net Promoter. And Allstate ties its 401(k) match to a customer loyalty index for 80% of company staff, including all of its customer-facing employees.

Comments

Don't forget, United also

Don't forget, United also breaks guitars - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5YGc4zOqozo. While airline service can be bad in general, it seems that United's culture is unfixable.