United's Mistake: It Put the Customer Last
This week I'm at the MarketingSherpa Summit, listening to some very smart people talk about how important it is to be a customer-first marketer.
Introducing the keynote, Daniel Burstein, senior director of editorial content, delivered the research insight that gives MarketingSherpa Summit its purpose: The No. 1 complaint of unsatisfied customers is, "The company does not put my needs and wants ahead of its goal." On the other hand, satisfied customers are three times more likely to say the company does put the customer's needs and wants before its business goals.
To Burstein and company, this is the No. 1 issue facing marketers today. Customers need to believe you are putting their needs and wants first in order to want to do business with you. And they don't. In fact, the research Burstein quoted said that 77 percent of American consumers reported they did not see customer-first marketing very often.
“Marketing has moved from being a service-oriented relationship to an adversarial relationship,” said MECLABS Institute Managing Director and Sherpa Summit keynoter Flint McGlaughlin (MarketingSherpa is a part of MECLABS). Consumers think you’re trying to trick them, trying to pull the wool over their eyes, trying to get out of delivering.
Now according to their more recent statement, which contradicts their earlier statement, the flight was not technically overbooked. United just had four crew members that had to be in Louisville for a flight the next day, and they selected four passengers to give up their seats and be "re-accommodated" so there crew could get where they needed to be.
Seldom does life line up so cleanly to illustrate the issues we're facing.
United Put Its Customers Last
There is a promise that is fundamental to marketing. And that promise is that, if a customer pays you for your product or service, you will deliver that product or service.
Here, the airline broke that promise. It broke the promise for selfish reasons — to get its employees where they needed to be at the expense of their customers — and then essentially called in hired goons to deal with the "troublemaker" customer who refused to go along quietly with getting wronged.
Airlines have overbooked for ages, but they have a tried and true method of dealing with the conflicts that causes: They throw money at it. When overbooking causes an issue, the airline basically bribes customers to give up seats by offering things like vouchers for future flights as an incentive to be rebooked on a later flight.
If you offer enough incentive, that always works. Who isn't going to give up their seat for, say, $10,000? There is always a price that will ensure you don't have to forcibly drag your customer off the plane.
Here, something went wrong. Maybe they didn't make that offer because the flight wasn't technically overbooked? Maybe they didn't offer enough? Whatever the reason, the result was that United resorted to bullying instead of buying.
That is not putting your customer first. That is putting your customer last.
And let's not let the outcome obscure the root issue here. Even before United had security drag a paying, seated passenger off their plane, they were already at a point where they couldn't get customers to willingly give up their seats and therefore had to pick four at random to give them up.
Can you imagine what that announcement must have sounded like? "Four of you have to give up your seats or else!"? That's not customer service, that's cartoon villainy.
Now, the crux of United's point of view is they have a policy. That policy is right there when you buy a ticket: They reserve the right to re-accommodate you on a different flight.
You know what? No one cares. A policy like that, no matter how clearly it's spelled out, is just an excuse. If you're willing to take people's money and not give them what they paid for, you at least gotta try to make it right.
Instead of making it right, United made it bloody. And that's a perception its customers are going to need a long time to forget.