This Sunday, April 9, 2017, image made from a video provided by Audra D. Bridges shows a passenger being removed from a United Airlines flight in Chicago. Video of police officers dragging the passenger from an overbooked United Airlines flight sparked an uproar Monday on social media, and a spokesman for the airline insisted that employees had no choice but to contact authorities to remove the man. (Audra D. Bridges via AP)

This Sunday, April 9, 2017, image made from a video provided by Audra D. Bridges shows a passenger being removed from a United Airlines flight in Chicago. Video of police officers dragging the passenger from an overbooked United Airlines flight sparked an uproar Monday on social media, and a spokesman for the airline insisted that employees had no choice but to contact authorities to remove the man. (Audra D. Bridges via AP)

Avoid Hit & Run PR

Here is a case study that demonstrates how a small company had acted in a similar situation as United did.

BACKGROUND STORY:

A few years back I was working with one of the top golf coaches in the country.  Along with coaching top professionals, his team also offered destination coaching.  Destination coaching is where you travel to a different location where they arrange for hotels, meals etc., for two to three days of intensive golf lessons.

A couple came in for a three-day golf lesson, where the wife had bought this as a gift for her husband to celebrate their 25th anniversary.  They came in to town and were really excited about the trip.

The husband had past medical conditions as he had recovered from a major car accident and there were metal plates in his face and shoulder, causing him limited mobility.

On the first afternoon of lessons, the instructor took the couple to the video lab to analyze their golf swing.  He was trying to help the husband maximize the body turn for the backswing and in the process tried to physically turn his body into the right position. As he was doing it, the husband felt uncomfortable and then felt that something “popped”. He was in major pain. The wife realized the seriousness of the situation and without delay took her husband to the hospital.

 

THE DILEMNA: DECISION MAKING PROCESS

Within an hour, the golf coach and his team were made aware of the situation. I was asked to rush to advise them.  As the team discussed, I realized that everyone was worried about a potential lawsuit and were trying to figure out if the instructor did anything wrong.  No one was talking about the man getting hurt.

I was shocked and told the team: “Guys, our first concern should be about the man’s health.  The couple are our guests, the husband is in the hospital in a town far away from home and the wife must be freaking out. Let us first go and help them in any way we can. The rest can be sorted out later, or will fall in place.”

Not everyone liked my idea and I could sense some debate; especially from the lawyer in the group who opposed it.  He felt that helping the man can be interpreted as “admission of guilt”. But that is when true leadership from the golf coach took over. He said, “Screw everything guys. I want to go and take care of the couple. I don’t care what happens. And I feel bad that we did not do it sooner. Yes, they are our guests and we will treat them that way.”

ACTION:

Nearly three hours after the incident the coach and his wife and myself, went to the hospital to meet the couple.  The husband was under observation in intensive care and the wife was sitting there, freaking out.  She appeared very scared.

The coach’s wife approached her, gave her a hug and said, “we are so sorry this happened. We are here to help you and your husband go through this. One of us will be here with you all the time, until your husband is out of the hospital and you are ready to go back home.”

There was a tiny smile of relief on the wife’s face. Then the three of us got to action.

  • We got her a hotel room next to the hospital. I checked her in and put their luggage in the hotel room.
  • Then we drove the wife over to the hotel for her to freshen up and change out of the golf clothes, especially the shoes.
  • By the time she got back to the hospital, we had a meal ready for her.
  • The next two days we made sure that one of us was there with her in the hospital.
  • On day two, from time to time, the wife would take a break and go the hotel. We assured her that we would be there with her husband and will contact her immediately if she was needed.

On day three, the husband was released from the hospital and they immediately wanted to go home. We had changed their airline tickets and paid for an upgrade.  As they left for the airport, the coach handed them a letter that said, “We are very sorry this happened. You did not come to town for this and we should have done better to make sure this did not happen. We are very sorry.  When you are ready, please call me and I will re-plan the trip for you.  We have unfinished business to take care of, that is to fix your golf games.”

The couple read the letter. There was smile on their face. They reached out and gave each of us a big hug.  And yes, six months later they were back. And this time it was a no-touch golf lesson.

LESSONS LEARNED:

  1. Always put the customer and their needs first.
  2. If a customer is hurt, first take care of them. And as we do it, act from the heart.
  3. Finally let’s take actions to fix things e.g. give them money back and other reasons to comeback. That must wait until we have taken care of the customer.
  4. At no point, should we start by getting defensive or not taking responsibility.
  5. Let us not try to dodge the consequence. Every action has a consequence and if we must pay for our mistakes, we will.

THE TAKEAWAY:

The big takeaway from all of this is that mistakes happen but how you act after a mistake defines character.

WHAT COULD UNITED AIRLINES HAVE DONE DIFFERENTLY?

  1. After the incident, Oscar should have said immediately, “Guys this is not right. This is not what United stands for.  Yes, we will investigate what went wrong and make sure this does not happen again.  But our top priority is to take care of the passenger, help him get through his medical treatment and then assist him to get home safely”.
  2. Then he should then follow through on the promise and act from the heart.

Thank you,

Arjun Sen

Arjun advises brands and senior professionals on how to put customers first in all aspects of PR and brand strategy.

2 Responses to What United Airlines Could and Should Have Done!
  1. Arjun – These are two outstanding examples (one lousy, one extraordinary) of how to handle an issue with a customer. You were always a proponent of trying to think of things from the customer’s perspective and act accordingly. You’ve demonstrated that the “good” approach really works but, more importantly, you’ve always supported doing the right thing by the customer whether there was any immediate payback or not. Customer Karma is real and you were so very insightful to create and develop the concept.

  2. Arjun: Totally right. United and other giants have lost the human touch. Your story is ample proof of that. Good job!


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