United: the Network is Watching You

To get my first (of two) points, you (almost) only need to read the following, taken from the United Airlines website:

We are committed to providing a level of service to our customers that makes us a leader in the airline industry. We understand that to do this we need to have a product we are proud of and employees who like coming to work every day.


Our goal is to make every flight a positive experience for our customers. Our United Customer Commitment explains our specific service commitments so that we can continue a high level of performance and improve wherever possible. The commitment explains our policies in a clear, consistent and understandable fashion. We have detailed training programs and system enhancements to support our employees in meeting these commitments, and we measure how well we meet them.


Welcome on board United Airlines!”

My first point?United

To appreciate how vital culture is in determining the success of any business, ask
yourself whether anyone who had (a) read and(b) believed the above “United Customer Commitment” could possibly have behaved the way United’s employees behaved towards one of its customers this week.

Setting aside the incompetence which had allowed a flight to be boarded before dealing with the overbooking – which could and should have been sorted out at the departure gate – ask yourself further whether a CEO who was fit to lead an organisation that makes such a commitment would have gone on to accuse the unfortunate customer of being “disruptive and belligerent”?

Now, I fully appreciate that, legally, United was within its rights to remove a passenger – that is the captain’s decision on each and every flight. And there is evidence that the passenger in question was upset and angry, and possibly resisting his removal. However, it’s equally clear that the situation was wholly of the airline’s making, and that it should therefore have bent over backwards to manage the issue with tact and diplomacy.

After all, the airline’s primary responsibility is the safety of its passengers. And this man (believed to be a doctor) ended up hurt – by the airline.

Removing him in the first place was not about safety – it was about making room on the flight for some of United’s own employees, who needed to travel in order to be in place for a subsequent flight. You could argue that the disruption that would have affected all the passengers on that subsequent flight outweighed the disruption United proposed to cause the doctor.

Fine. However…

The cost to the airline of the actions taken in its name, and at least partially endorsed by its CEO, have cost it incalculable reputational damage: $1bn wiped off its share price and blanket, negative coverage across all forms of media (just search #NewUnitedAirlinesMottos and you’ll get the flavour).

For the foreseeable future, “United Airlines” will be a byword for the worst Customer Experience imaginable.

Which brings me to my second point:

Aside from the patently obvious culture problem (to reiterate, a culture where no-one believes, or acts in accordance with, the company’s stated philosophy), there’s a strategy problem too (although as MIT’s Ed Schein, the “Father of Corporate Culture”, once said,

Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”)

The strategy problem – and one that is challenging many businesses – is the failure to understand the power of the Networked Age

In simple, the very possibility that a planeload of passengers, armed with smartphones and all networked to the hilt, could be treated to the spectacle of one of its own being dragged, kicking and screaming off the plane, would not exist if United understood that, in the Networked Age, everything it does either increases, or decreases, the value of the Network – and ultimately, of the business itself.

It’s the 21st Century version of the dictum of the saviour of another airline, Jan Carlzon, of SAS:

We have 50,000 Moments of Truth every day.”

In the Networked Age, as United is discovering, that 50,000 can become 50,00managing-customer-experience-in-the-networked-age0,000 overnight.

If you’d like to read more about the Networked Age, and discover strategies to thrive in it, I’ve helpfully written an eBook, which you can find here.

United’s performance over the past few days truly beggars belief; however the lessons are vitally important for every organisation – to learn, re-learn, to embrace, and to place at the top of every agenda.

The Network is watching you: are you ready for it?

“Customer Experience isn’t simply the quality and arrangement of assets. It’s their orchestration”.

I help organisations orchestrate their assets so that everyone and everything plays to their full potential.

Please click here to find out more.

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