Thursday, August 16, 2012

Was United Airline's Misplaced Kid a Sign of Bad Corporate Culture?

Every business that has ever existed has made mistakes. Because they're run by people. And every person who has ever existed has made mistakes.

So when a company screws up, you want to give them the benefit of the doubt, at least until you see whether they try to make things right.

According to a blog post that has hit the national news in the past couple of days,   United Airlines did not get it right. Spectacularly so..

According to the Bob Sutton Work Matters blog, nobody from United would deal with an unaccompanied 10 year old girl on a flight to Chicago, who was to make a connecting flight to Michigan. The girl was AWOL, then found in a terminal. Nobody would help the girl, even as she pleaded for help from somebody, anybody, according to Sutton and the girl's parents.

Everybody at United seemed to believe the girl was not their problem, even as the kid's frantic parents tried to get somebody, anybody to help the girl get to her destination.

United employees were completely unresponsive, according to the girl's parents. They were on hold for hours on end with United, to no avail. Only when they appealed to female United employees' maternal feelings for their own children did anybody help at all.

The girl eventually got to her destination, minus her luggage, no thanks to United. And the parents reported that when they filed a formal complaint to United, they were not allowed to write it themselves. They had to dictate it to a United employee, who wouldn't let the couple review the complaint for accuracy.

Only when the negative publicity crap hit the fan for United did they begin to respond, apologizing to the family.

Sutton wonders, as do I, why some big companies believe they should avoid providing customer service to people who pay for those services. The short answer, of course, is because they can. They figure people don't have good alternatives to what they're offering, so they can abuse their customers.

Yes, it costs money to pay employees to help customers sort out misunderstandings and mistakes. And Lord, yes, some customers are just self centered, whining, cheap complainers who try to get anything they can from whoever they can.

But, it would be nice to build good will through customer service would it not? Wouldn't it pay dividends in repeat customers who spend lots and lots of additional cash on these businesses?

Sutton blames a pervasive corporate culture at United for the lack of customer service, He contrasts it with JetBlue, which has made its share of boneheaded, very public mistakes. But Sutton said JetBlue at least tried to make things right with affected people.

It seems like there are two corporate cultures in America. One, which seems to be the case at United, is all about making profit and nothing else. Of course, a business is there to make a profit. That's their function. But in this culture, customers are an impediment to profit, because they want things that cost the company money, thereby taking the cash away from CEO's and shareholders.

In this corporate world, the logical conclusion to their philosophy is people should give them money for no discernable goods or services, and be grateful for doing so, because the companies deserve it for no reason, I guess.

This philosphy sometimes works, unfortunately, in a world where entities merge until they have a monopoly. So if you're not satisfied with Company A, you can't go to Company B because there is none, it's been gobbled up by Company A. So you're stuck with Company A's awfulness.

The other, better American corporate culture is to make a profit through selling goods and services good enough to make people want them,  and to make sure the purchase makes these customers feel good, that they've had a good experience. That way, the customers might come back for more, tell their friends how great the company is, and the company will reap more profits.

And boy, does it feel good when a company is super responsive. For instance, in the past couple years, I've had snafus involving orders from LL Bean   and Johnny's Selected Seeds.

In each case, their employees or their computer systems made minor, honest mistakes, which I contributed to by not being clear with what I wanted when doing business with them.

But in each case, when I called the companies to straighten things out, I was immediately connected to customer service representatives. I was not placed on hold, the people I talked to were pleasant, they straighted out the problem very quickly, apologized for any inconvenience, and even made up for things by offering a coupon.

You can bet I've since been back to the three firms to order or buy more stuff. And as you can see by what I just wrote, I'm not shy about telling people when I'm happy with a company that does a good job.

Too bad other companies can't take that lead.

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