United Breaks Guitars

July 13, 2009

United Airlines baggage handlers broke Dave Carroll’s guitar.  Google United Airlines these days and two links dominate:  United’s official site and a video of a song Carroll wrote called, “United Breaks Guitars.”  The video has been watched over a million times.

Carroll reports that he actually witnessed the instrument’s demise, when fellow passengers on his United flight looked out their windows and yelled, “they’re throwing guitars out there.”  He then began a fruitless campaign of trying to get the airline to reimburse him, a nine-month ordeal captured in the video by a parade of apathetic employees.  United’s explanation?  As reported by the Chicago Tribune, Carroll had made a procedural misstep by not filing a claim within 24 hours.  There was nothing they could do. Sorry.  And so Carroll wrote a song.

There is no question that the video is a PR problem of the worst kind.  As a friend of mine said, “I’ve seen more press about this song than actual United ads.”  Bad service and United Airlines are now powerfully linked in the minds of consumers. But United’s bigger problem is lurking in the hundreds of comments posted everywhere this story is being told, from individual blogs to pillars of the mainstream media.  These comments make a compelling case that indifference towards customers is business as usual at United.

United spokespeople now say that they’re going to use the video to help the company improve its service, and my prediction is that these efforts will fail.  The company’s language is tentative.  If Carroll’s experience illustrates a systematic pattern of failing customers — and the anecdotal evidence suggests that it does — then United’s leadership will need to do something much bigger than launch a superficial service initiative.  They will need to find the courage to return to the blueprints of the business model and take responsibility for the fact that they created a system that reliably produces mediocrity.

Having no direct experience with United’s service design, here’s my guess as to what drove the behaviors that infuriated Carroll:

1. A United call center agent in India turned down Carroll’s request for making good on the damaged guitar.  The agent was selected and trained to comply with an increasingly complex set of procedures, and he was likely measured by his ability to follow these procedures precisely and efficiently.  Did he do a good job?  The policy clearly states that claims must be filed within 24 hours, and he likely had no authority to override them.  His performance is probably also measured by the number of calls he can handle in a day and perhaps even the number of calls he can handle without passing them off.  Now put this individual —  probably the lowest paid employee at United — in a situation where customers are justified in yelling at him all day long, and it’s not difficult to predict the outcome.  In fact, the agent did his job well as the system’s architects designed it.  He followed the rules and handled the call quickly, without bothering his manager.

2. What about the baggage handler seen throwing the guitar?  It is not difficult to imagine his crew being told earlier that day that plane turnaround time is the most important driver of the airline’s success, that times had been creeping up, and that low employee effort was at least partially to blame.  What’s a reasonable response to these messages?  Getting the luggage off the cart and onto the plane as quickly as possible.  This would almost certainly require throwing bags, particularly if the time guidelines made it all but impossible to meet the turnaround goals by respecting each piece of luggage.

3. And the front-line service team on the planes and in the airports, the ones who likely fielded Carroll’s original complaint?  These teams are also responsible for all-important turnaround times, which in their case requires managing an incredible range of customer variance, from disabled passengers to families with screaming children and excessive baggage.  They probably regretted the damage to the guitar, but their jobs were on the line in a climate of declining resources to manage the problems within their direct control.  They were probably eager to return to the urgent challenge of getting passengers to their destination with fewer planes and fewer colleagues, to say nothing of fewer tools  (lunch, anyone?) to reduce the growing discomfort of  air travel today.

My point here is that if you’re committed to changing a service experience, try to understand why reasonable, well-intentioned employees are behaving in existing ways.  Only then can you expose the underlying causes of the service failure.  Most change initiatives come up short because they start with Carroll’s basic premise — that employees aren’t trying hard enough or don’t care enough.  In these situations, managers often conclude that inspiration, brow-beating and tweaks to the incentive structure will shame or motivate employees to perform better.  But employees are rarely the problem.  The problem is usually the service model in which employees are operating, which has set them up to fail systematically.

United’s leaders must take responsibility for their central role in frustrating their customers.  This means redesigning the system so that employees can succeed on a regular basis.  If the company follows Carroll’s lead and blames employees for the problem, I suspect that little will change, except the rising level of customer dissatisfaction.  For those with less musical talent than Carroll, this will mean voting with their feet not their voices.  In the absence of accountability at the top, United’s customers will desert them.


What Have Your Customers Done for You Lately?

June 22, 2009

Customer goodwill is also difficult to measure — or even define.  But we know it matters.  Certainly, it makes a difference to the top line.  Customers who like you are more likely to buy things from you and tell their friends about it.  They’re also more likely to behave once they cross the operational boundaries of your organization, which can make a big difference to service companies.  Customers with “good will” are better customer operators, better partners in the sometimes complex project of joint value creation.

How much better?  We still don’t have good universal measures of customer goodwill, but one that comes close is the number of complaints you receive relative to your competitors.  Airline customers tend to complain at a relatively high rate.  One reason is that airline service routinely fails to meet expectations.  Another is that the service is mission-critical for both business and leisure travels.  If you lose my luggage on the way to my daughter’s wedding or delay me for an important meeting, I’m going to want you to feel my pain.

But not if your Southwest Airlines.  Customers file official complaints about Southwest far less frequently than they do about other airlines, even when Southwest has similar mishaps.  Their customers also go above and beyond the call of duty in helping Southwest succeed.  A favorite example of the value of this devotion is captured in an HBS case written by Jim Heskett.  Early in Southwest’s run, an airline called Braniff International offered a 60-day “sale” on tickets between Dallas and Houston — Southwest’s core market — for half the price of Southwest’s fare, $13 instead of $26.  Southwest countered with an ad proclaiming that “nobody’s going to shoot us out of the sky for a lousy $13.”  And the company gave its customers a choice:  pay either $13 or $26 for exactly the same seat on Southwest.  80% of Southwest customers chose to pay $26.

Would your customers stick around if your competitors cut their prices in half?  There are lots of reasons that Southwest has thrived in a difficult service environment, but one primary reason is their ability to answer yes.  Let’s call it customer goodwill for short.