Why Companies Like United Think Customer Experience is Irrelevant

(Image: Descent into Hell, by a follower of Jheronimus Bosch.)

This week’s United Airlines incident – a seated, paying passenger, bloodied and dragged off a plane for saying no to removal from an overbooked flight – AND the airline’s spin on the incident illustrates the company’s disdain for customer experience. Why did they think they could get away with it?

Customer experience (CX) is the set and sum of perceptions formed through interactions with a brand, product, or service. CX starts with awareness created though advertising, word-of-mouth, and social buzz. It is confirmed in the course of online, in-store, and point-of-sale and point-of-service “touchpoint” interactions. Central of course are perceptions of packaging, quality, and value, factoring in cost and relative to the competition. CX affects customer loyalty and advocacy.

United Airlines’s behavior treats customer experience as irrelevant, irrelevant because United appears to believe:

  • Employee experience trumps customer experience. Witness newspaper headlines such as “United CEO defends employees as uproar continues.” This Boston Globe article quotes United CEO Oscar Munoz, as follows: “While I deeply regret this situation arose, I also emphatically stand behind all of you, and I want to commend you for continuing to go above and beyond to ensure we fly right.”
  • Policy prevails. “They’re so locked into their policies, there’s no room for empathy,” said Julia Underwood, a business professor at Azusa Pacific University quoted in the LA Times about a different United incident.
  • Good enough is good enough. Flyers already have low experience expectations. We expect to be crammed in, unless we pay price multiples for business or first class, just as we expect car-rental companies to scam us for fees and add-ons and just as we expect to have to wipe down a table ourselves, occasionally, at a fast-food place. United gets away with poor CX because good enough is good enough.
  • Supply is limited, so CX won’t affect consumer choice. Competition in oligopoly markets is on availability and price rather than experience. American and Southwest also fly nonstop Chicago-to-Louisville, the incident route. How many customers will switch if the competitors’ ticket costs $25 more or the flight times are undesirable? (A side point: Artificial perception of limited supply, via deadlines, small production runs, etc., is of course a common market tactic.)
  • Loyalty doesn’t depend on satisfaction, or rather, it can bought or forced. You don’t have to earn it. From a practical point of view, loyalty is a behavior rather than an attitude. It’s repeat patronage. United’s higher-value customers put a lot of effort into achieving and maintaining “status,” or they have few route alternatives, so they’re loyal.
  • Customers are self-centered. Most will perceive the drag-off incident as a fluke, and highly-profitable status customers will think, “they wouldn’t do this to me. His experience isn’t going to be mine.”
  • There are no consequences. Executives and PR flacks blame the victim: the removed passenger was “disruptive and belligerent.” They evade responsibility, for instance pinning it on third-party aviation security. They hide behind legalisms such as “established procedures” and the “contract of carriage” and offer non-apologies – “for having to re-accommodate these customers” (rather than for physical brutality) – and pretend to care. The storm of evasions and half-steps overwhelms us and we move on.

My conclusion: You may be tempted to think customer experience is irrelevant if your business doesn’t depend on satisfaction and you just don’t care. Don’t.

Many companies aim for and achieve great customer experience, even while supporting employees, maintaining profitability, and accepting responsibility for missteps. United is not one of them. Excellence should be an end in itself. United Airlines disagrees, and now, given the backlash from the dragging incident, they may learn that there are, in fact consequences.

Customer experience measurement and optimization are central topics at the 2017 Sentiment Analysis Symposium, two days of NLP, text, sentiment, and emotion analytics coverage – including at a half-day Customer Journey Transformation workshop – June 27-28 in New York. See you there?

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