The recent incident on a United Airlines flight where a passenger was forcibly removed to create space for a member of staff was an incident about customer service and satisfaction that turned into a PR disaster for the airline.
However, what really caught my attention was listening to the British head of the Virgin group, Sir Richard Branson, commenting on the incident. When an interviewer asked him if this he could happen on a Virgin flight he sounded nonplussed and just replied that it’s unthinkable for any of his employees to treat a customer this way. He genuinely sounded confused, as if it’s unimaginable for Virgin to ever behave like this.
Branson’s own reaction to the United incident was to post a photograph on the Virgin Facebook page of him serving drinks to passengers on a Virgin flight with this message:
“Passengers deserve choice, they deserve courtesy, and they deserve care. They deserve innovation, they deserve respect, and they deserve an amazing experience. They do not deserve to be treated like numbers on a balance sheet, and cattle in a cabin.”
Tough words from one airline to another, but it’s interesting to observe that after all the compensation payments and refunded tickets, the most interesting outcome from the incident is that United Airlines has now moved to a compensation scheme based on customer satisfaction.
The United incident is largely focused on the approach to customer satisfaction followed by the big American airlines. It’s no secret that all the major American airlines have bounced in and out of bankruptcy and are intensely focused on the balance sheet. Perhaps this change in remuneration metrics will change the approach for United by ensuring that customer satisfaction always comes before saving a few dollars?
In the UK, customer satisfaction across all industries has been generally improving for the past few years. Research published earlier this year by the Institute of Customer Service (ICS) shows that since their survey (published every 6 months) started early in 2015 there has been a consistent increase in general customer satisfaction.
Given the United incident and Richard Branson’s comments on the cultural difference towards customer satisfaction at Virgin, it’s interesting to see that of the four key differentiators that distinguish companies with a strong focus on customer satisfaction, three of them are related to employees:
- Staff doing what they say they will do
- Attitude of the staff
- Staff understanding the issue
- The actual outcome of a complaint
To my mind these research outcomes are critically important. Customers are saying that three measures are more important than the outcome of any incident when deciding how satisfied they are with your company – and all those three measures are based on how your team interacts with the customer.
The United Airlines incident was a mistake that was compounded by poor media handling. The airline could have avoided much of the global criticism just by issuing a swift apology, but Branson’s fierce trust in the ability of his team at Virgin to always do the right thing shows a deep understanding of how customer satisfaction is truly created.
Creating a satisfied customer demands that the employees know what they are doing, but also that they are empowered to just do the right thing when a problem occurs. It may sound like a paradox, but often the most satisfied customers are those who faced a problem and were impressed with the way it was handled.