When does one customer matter?:  Reflections on the United Uproar

Unless you have been in a total media blackout this week—and especially social media, if your Twitter and Facebook feeds resemble mine in any way—you have more than a passing familiarity with the removal of a passenger from a United Express flight on April 9th.  Whatever your opinion of the behavior of the passenger, airline, and security personnel and your views on airline overbooking policies; the viral spread of this story, debates about blame attribution, and the impact on United’s stock and its brand cannot be denied. 

One recurring thread through the social media outrage is that a significant number of people I am connected to are vowing not to fly United again.  When push comes to shove and the alternative requires a much higher fare and/or an extra connection, some percentage of these would-be-boycotters will no doubt reluctantly return to the United fold.  However, many will willingly pay an extra $30 to fly a competitor or connect through DFW rather than IAH or DTW versus ORD.  These individual choices will have an aggregate effect on United’s performance at least in the short run.  As someone who already avoids “flying the friendly skies” due to unfavorable pricing and routes from my home airport(s), none of my skin is in the game for United.  At the same time, I relate to those vowing not to support the airline.  In today’s connected world, running a company that does not have a customer-centric mindset, like United, will eventually have a huge impact.

CEO Munoz’s initial public statement and the internal memo sent to United employees point away from the customer-centric approach that has guided my professional life and continues to influence my personal spending decisions. It has been roughly 14 years since I have stayed in an IHG hotel property.  As a new field sales rep with a limited expense budget, I had developed a deep loyalty to the Holiday Inn chain.  I would go so far as to stay farther away from my next day’s meetings out of loyalty to Holiday Inn.  I was their ideal customer—the one that their marketing team worked hard to pull into the funnel.  That all changed one particularly stormy winter night when I booked a room online after 6 pm for that same evening, as the failing health of a family member required an abrupt change of plan.  After seeing multiple accidents including a jackknifed tractor-trailer in the first 10 minutes of my two hour journey, I begrudgingly decided to turn around and try again in the early morning hours when the storm was supposed to subside.  Over the course of the next 48 hours, I spoke and corresponded with multiple staff at the hotel and in the chain’s management in an effort to get that night refunded.  The responses I received all pointed to their policy—since the booking was made after 6pm, it could not be cancelled and refunded.  No matter that the hotel was in a Mid-Atlantic beach town in the dead of winter where certainly they did not have to turn someone else away to hold my room.  No matter the storm.  No matter my family’s health crisis.  It wasn’t their personnel saying “no refund”; it was the company policy.  Like United, they stood their policy up instead of their customer.  The next day I donated my loyalty points to charity and have never stayed at an IHG property again.  Did my 75-100 nights/year of lost business at that time and for the next handful of years cripple IHG’s business?  No.  But clearly their inability (or lack of trust) to let their personnel apply policy appropriately, their lack of empathy towards their customer, and their lack of desire to engage with their customers in aggregate have kept the company’s growth from rivaling that of Marriott or Hilton.  Maybe I didn’t impact them directly—but a bunch of customers just like me had that same experience. 

Contrast that with a much more recent experience I had with Nautica, the clothier.  When it comes to a nice relaxing T-shirt or bathing suit, I have developed a loyalty to this company’s products due to their value.  In the past month, that affinity was shaken as I went to redeem a rewards certificate at one of their brick and mortar stores.  Long story short, the clerks could not figure out how to conduct what seemingly should be a routine transaction—showing appreciation to your loyal customers—and my subsequent (multiple) follow-ups with the company’s centralized customer service team failed to yield results.  Just as I was ready to write off Nautica and shift my loyalties and spending to one of their competitors, though, a regional manager went above and beyond in her apologetic handling of my complaint (addressing the original issue, emailing and calling, and following up repeatedly and promptly).  As a result, my loyalty to the brand is at least as strong today as it was prior to the incident. 

Simply put, a customer-centric company does not let 1:1 interactions with customers go from insignificant rounding errors on their financial statements to front page news and long-term drags on its success. Customer-centric companies don’t point to policy.  They acknowledge.  They listen.  They apologize.  They make changes.  They honor those changes.  Companies, like United, will either change or spend a lot more money on PR.  And lawyers.