The brutal "deplaning" of Dr David Dao from a United Airlines flight, which ended with him bleeding, bruised and concussed, sent shivers down the spine of anyone who has ever travelled by plane. The video of the assault on Dao caused outrage around the world and United's reputation also got a beating. Within a few days of the incident, the company lost market cap to the tune of $770 million.
Clearly, United Airlines needs to embed "empathy" as a core element of its corporate culture.
As an individual who likes to study organisations, I believe the incident could have been avoided had United Airlines focused on three things as a company.
1. Embedding empathy into corporate culture
Clearly, one area that United needs to revisit is its culture. What happened to David Dao is but the tip of the iceberg. To get a sense of issues that customers have faced, I suggest you go through the letters here. Then, of course, there was the famous leggings incident.
I have flown United and I can tell you that even I have experienced a distinct lack of sensitivity and customer-centricity in the staff. For example, in May 2014, we used United Airlines to travel from Mumbai to Newark. While on the flight, my daughter felt a bit unwell and complained of nausea. When I reached out to a crew member for help she made such a face—as if we had committed a crime. On landing in the US, I did tweet about it but in vain. There was no response.
If you closely look at all these incidents, one thing that is common all across is a lack of empathy. Clearly, United Airlines needs to embed "empathy" as a core element of its corporate culture. To know more about empathy and its various shades I suggest you read my previous article here.
The corporate value of "empathy" should resonate at all customer touch points. This would mean things which get done for the consumer before, during and after an interaction with the company. A culture of empathy would mean even the people who are working behind the scenes have to keep the customer's interests in mind while doing their work. Even the processes and checklists that are there would have to be designed with the customer in mind.
If empathy had been the core of United's organisational processes, David Dao would never have been beaten up.
2. Take the "Customer Commitments" seriously
United has something called the "Our United Customer Commitment", which delineates what a guest can expect as far as service is concerned. One of the points, ironically, is "treat customers fairly and consistently in the case of oversales." What happened to David Dao belies this "commitment". Clearly the company's laid-down standards are not always being followed on the ground.
Top management should remember that not meeting customer commitments impacts the brand and shows that senior leaders are not serious about their promises.
There could be myriad reasons for this. It could be that employees don't know these commitments. It could that people know of them but don't believe in them. It could be that employees don't follow them. We will never know the reason for it but one thing is clear—a business organisation should take its commitments very seriously. If it does not do so, employees will doubt the seriousness of all commitments that the company has made.
The way to avoid non-adherence to customer commitments is to make sure they are supported by robust processes and all resources are provided to make sure they are complied with. This has to be led by the top management. Clearly, there also needs to be a mechanism to detect and address cases in which these customer commitments are not followed. Top management should remember that not meeting customer commitments impacts the brand and shows that senior leaders are not serious about their promises.
3. Know how to manage difficult situations
The way the whole issue was managed by the company after the event occurred was less than desirable. There are broadly two problems here. The first is the way United crew members managed the situation to evict David Dao. Instead of calling the cops of the Chicago Department of Aviation (which is an easy way out), they should have tried to persuade him using gentler means. Clearly the crew and staff of United need to be trained on tactics of psychology and influence to manage such uncommon situations.
The second was the way the crisis was managed after the event occurred.
The first reaction of the CEO Oscar Munoz was to say the customer was belligerent and to defend the actions of the security officers. By then the news had gone viral and there were questions raised about whether such tactics would have been used on a White passenger. The CEO did put out a series of apologies subsequently but the damage seemed to have been done.
Having seen the violence, the CEO should have apologised immediately, rather than waiting to do it. Clearly, the top management at United need to learn the art of managing crisis.