Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably seen or read about the United airlines “re-accommodation” incident where a passenger was forcibly removed from an airplane that was “oversold” so that 4 United employees could board the plane instead. Chalk this up as one more reason why I fly private.
As a serious student of customer service and the companies who practice exceptional service recovery, I was curious what I could learn about United and its history on customer service. It didn’t take long to discover a disturbing trend.
In the 1990s, United sold 55% of the company back to its employees. The buyout was led by the pilot’s union chief who said his goal was, “not to kill the golden goose but to choke it by the neck until it gives us every last egg.” Those are not the words from a leader that understands customer value or how free markets work.
In United’s 2002 bankruptcy filings, they were fined for illegal work slowdowns. On a single day in 2008, 329 flights had to be cancelled when a whole slew of union pilots called in sick on the same day, even though they were healthy. 36,000 United travelers were stranded that day. The union admitted to using such tactics to maintain employee ownership. In other words, they were intentionally harming the customer experience and holding the company hostage for more ownership and control.
The CEO of United came on the news yesterday and said the passenger had been “re-accommodated.” This gave late night hosts like Fallon and Kimmel plenty of fodder for their monologues. But, the joke was on United, who saw its stock plunge over 4% early in the trading day after this PR storm rolled onto the front page of the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and New York Times.
We’ve got American-Russian relations at a boiling point, North Korea threatening to throw nukes at the U.S. and somehow a domestic airline company has managed to steal all of the news headlines. That’s what we call a “very bad week” in the public relations world.
Listen, we all think we provide better customer service than we actually do. I know because I watch more orthodontic secret-shopper tapes tapes than any other person on the planet. I see the difference between what we think is happening and what is actually happening in our offices. Fortunately, I’ve never seen one of our clients forcibly remove a patient from the clinic because they were “over-booked.” There are no excuses for United’s actions, but there are some profound clues as to how it happened and what they could have done to recover from the service failure in a much better way.
Many of you know we do a lot of work with The Disney Institute. If you’ve ever been to one of Disney’s parks, you understand they provide great service, but they’re not perfect. Disney World welcomes over 52,000 guests per day. It’s hard to be perfect with that many guests. Disney comes pretty darn close to being perfect and they do a better job than nearly any other company on the planet. However, what Disney does better than everyone else, hands down, is recover from service failures in a big way. Often, the stories shared by guests when they return home is not about the 99% of their trip that went smoothly, but the 1% that went horribly wrong and how Disney rushed in and saved the day with a big service recovery. They talk about how amazing the service was, even though it was in response to something that went horribly awry.
I’ve seen Disney do this with long wait times for dinner reservations, rooms that weren’t ready upon arrival and with lost luggage. I’ve seen it when the transportation is running behind or when the snack stands or stores are out of a particular item. Disney has a special way of recovering from their service failures and they make it a point to share those stories with their entire cast.
Let’s think about service recovery in terms of the United Airlines passenger who was illegally removed from a plane and assaulted this week. Instead of hiding behind a policy and ignoring the service breakdown that resulted from overbooking their flights, United could have offered the passengers more money to take a different flight. They could have started an open bidding process, where the passengers tell the airline what they would be willing to take to get off the plane. Even then, if everyone refused to take another flight, they could and should have made their own employees wait to take the next flight.
You cannot expect your system or your employees to perform perfectly, but you can instruct, coach and empower them to fix things quickly when they see the things going off the rails. Then, reward them with praise and help them share with their co-workers what they did to resolve the situation. Talk about the results after service recovery. Show, share, learn and repeat.
Of course, it’s easy to be a Monday morning quarterback. Hindsight is always 20/20 and I’m certain United’s CEO is kicking himself for the way this unraveled so quickly. So, what can we learn from service failure and recovery opportunities?
First, empower your employees to do the right thing. Get your team in the habit of asking, “How would I want to be treated if I was in the patient’s shoes?” Do not give them false power by hiding behind policies and procedures. I cringe when I hear orthodontic team members say, “Well, that’s our policy.” Who cares about your policy? Most orthodontists have erected policies and procedures that they think are protecting them but, in reality, are damaging goodwill and flushing referrals down the drain. With everything you do, ask, “If I was the patient, what would I want?”
I would want a spotless office with spotless floors and pristine chairs that don’t have bits and pieces of o-ties, power-chain and wires anywhere in sight. I would want comfortable impressions and quick appointments with competent and efficient employees. I would want my treatment to run on time and I would want friendly people who remembered my name.
You get to determine what the orthodontic experience looks like in your office, but you don’t get to hide behind policies that make no sense to the consumer. Period.
Second, talk about and share examples of excellent service and service recovery. It’s hard to learn how to swing a golf club properly if you’ve never seen it done before. Stop expecting your employees to read your mind when it comes to providing excellent customer service in your office. Talk about it. Share examples. When an employee in our office gets a 9 or 10 rating in our net promotor score survey that asks patients whether they would, “Recommend our office to a friend or not,” the office manager is notified and the employee is rewarded. Both are reminded to share in tomorrow’s morning huddle exactly what the employee did to earn such a great score. Other employees need to see what their co-workers are doing to deliver great service. Talk about those ideas. Alternatively, when a patient records a score of 1 or 2, the site coordinator (office manager) is notified immediately and reminded to make a personal telephone call to that patient or parent that night after work.
We could talk for days about customer service, which is exactly why I scheduled a three-day summit on the topic later this month in Kansas City with a sold-out audience. I look forward to seeing many of you there. In the meantime, spend a few minutes in your morning huddle or weekly team meeting discussing what your employees think about the United Airlines story in the news. How can you learn from everything around you, in order to provide better service to your patients? Talk about the power of company culture that, over time, slowly led to a service environment that was not only poor but dangerous for customers. Come up with 5 things you can do this week to improve your service recovery. Reward your team and share your customer service “wins.”
To see what smart orthodontists are doing each week to strengthen their service and grow their practices, join me at TheBurlesonReport.com where I share with you the “wins” and feedback from our orthodontic clients in 25 countries throughout the world.