Consumer care lessons from United

You have probably noticed that United Airlines is in the news this week, with quite a bit of commentary on their policies and customer service. Almost 10 years ago I remember using the 'United Breaks Guitars' video and coverage as a case study for my team on the intersection of customer care, social media, and news coverage. Now as then, I see some lessons for those of us in consumer affairs.

First, word of mouth and consumer affairs really do intersect, for good or for bad. In addition to working to manage the downside risk of word of mouth it is also worth thinking about how you can put this to work as a positive for your brand.

Second, no matter what the rules say your responsibilities are as a brand, it is always worth applying the New York Times test, is that policy really what you want enforced? In our crisis planning work we have observed that video is often the catalyst for issues to become truly huge - these days video is everywhere, making quality forethought essential.

Third, how do you train and coach your people? Do you reprimand them for any instance of applying judgment and deviating from policy? I doubt that the United team in Chicago really wanted to enforce policy this way - did they feel trapped by process?

Finally, there have been some fascinating observations on the declining quality of consumer care and the potential that has for creating societal stresses. I think it is certainly fair to say that most people believe that 'customer service is not what it used to be.' However some businesses can be somewhat immune from consumer switching due to service issues (for example - it is not so easy to switch natural gas providers, and for many flight routes or airports there are not many options).

While that suggests that in another 9 or 10 years I may have another 'United teachable moment' it is NOT generally the situation most consumer brand manufacturers find themselves in. Our industry is more competitive than ever, and we should be very mindful of the value of our consumers and the risks to our brands when we work to deliver the efficiencies and cost reductions that the bottom line requires.


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Topics: social media, strategy