Think you’re having a bad week? Remember, you could be Oscar Munoz, CEO of United. Or you could be the carrier’s new PR person (they’re hiring, as my Inc.com colleague Bill Murphy, Jr. noted).
After the widespread story of the doctor dragged kicking and screaming out of the plane because he had already been seated, not only do customers figure that they should know their legal rights (and wear a helmet and protective gear), but current and past cases of egregious behavior are being revisited. Here are just some examples:
- LA Times reporter David Lazarus (who could make a career at this point from writing about United disasters) wrote about a man who was threatened with handcuffs if he didn’t leave the first class seat he had paid for so someone “more important” could have it.
- Another Lazarus story — when some customers were upgraded to first class and then told to move back to economy because CEO Munoz and his family, who were supposed to be on the flight, first changed their minds to go from another airport and then, on third thought, went back and wanted to be on the original flight. Munoz, to his credit, realized that moving people back wasn’t fair and so he and his family took the economy seats.
- There was the story of a Canadian man stung when a scorpion fell on him from an overhead bin.
- United reported decided to sue a parody website called Untied.com (clever twist of the letters), which had collected 30,000 complaints about the airline over the last 20 years.
And then, Dr. David Dao, the man dragged off the United flight in that terrible video, reportedly seems in the pre-filing stages of a lawsuit. How surprising, eh?
I emailed United’s PR group about these stories. Here’s the official response that ignores everything but Dao:
We continue to express our sincerest apology to Dr. Dao. We cannot stress enough that we remain steadfast in our commitment to make this right.
This horrible situation has provided a harsh learning experience from which we will take immediate, concrete action. We have committed to our customers and our employees that we are going to fix what’s broken so this never happens again.
First, we are committing that United will not ask law enforcement officers to remove passengers from our flights unless it is a matter of safety and security. Second, we’ve started a thorough review of policies that govern crew movement, incentivizing volunteers in these situations, how we handle oversold situations and an examination of how we partner with airport authorities and local law enforcement. Third, we will fully review and improve our training programs to ensure our employees are prepared and empowered to put our customers first. Our values – not just systems – will guide everything we do. We’ll communicate the results of our review and the actions we will take by April 30.
United CEO Oscar Munoz and the company called Dr. Dao on numerous occasions to express our heartfelt and deepest apologies.
Read critiques of United at this point and you’ll see many say the airline treats customers poorly and looks after its own needs. That’s close, but not the full issue. The real problem is a lack of balance.
A focus on customers is important for success — critical, even. Any company has multiple stakeholders and ignoring one, like the people who buy from yours, is asking to go out of business. There are also others with interests. Allow employees to be ill-used or abused and you’ll lose them, facing the costs that result from the need to recruit new workers, training, and lost productivity and knowledge. Dismiss shareholders and investors and you won’t get the financial backing you need. Ignore the operational needs of the company and you won’t have to worry about what you do to everything and everyone else because you’ll be out of business.
Stakeholders frequently have competing interests. One of a CEO’s jobs is to mediate among the interests and find an acceptable balance. Micromanaging each situation is impossible even for a small company, let alone a larger one. The answer is to create training, culture, and expectations that provide a mechanism to ensure right decisions, at least most of the time.
Balance means exactly that. You look at the relative needs, examine where accommodations can be made, and do so. In each of the cases above (other than the scorpion, which was clearly an accident), United personnel made the wrong decision. You don’t seat people and then tell them you’re booting them, particularly when you’re doing so to move some personnel to a necessary destination. If you booked a full flight, then recognize you should have reserved the space in advance and send them out on another plane. If need be, charter a plane or pay for their passage on a competing carrier. If the CEO and family show up after deciding not to take a flight, you don’t send people back to economy class after upgrading them. Don’t threaten someone who paid and got a seat to bump them for someone with “higher priority.” And if you need to get someone to volunteer to wait, up the money because it’s freakingly cheaper even to spend $10,000 in legal bribes than it is to lose $250 million in market value and guarantee ill will among many who might have been your customers.
But, hey, maybe you’ll get a fruit basket from a rival’s grateful CEO.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.