How Brand Challenges Can Build Corporate Character

A key lesson for all companies from United Airlines' PR nightmare

Posted Apr 30, 2017

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A key lesson for all companies in the wake of United Airlines’ “re-accommodation” debacle is the realization that character matters and that it is communicated in how well your employees handle customer service and engagement. There’s a huge difference in the customer experience of engagement if you’re dealing with an awakened human vs. a person acting in a machine like, robotic manner. There is no substitute for sensing with the heart when a situation needs to be dealt with in a way that varies from a corporate script.   

Both a person’s and a brands character is revealed during times of great pressure and stress. This was a classic example of a character building learning opportunity.

First, United has been struggling for a while. Its merger with Continental Airlines in 2010 left it internally fractured as it struggled to bring the carriers together. The new United seemed to under-invest at every turn. New uniforms had quality problems. New airliners had subpar seats, even for the airline's highest-paying customers. United lost loyal fliers and underperformed financially. Munoz’s predecessor departed in scandal. Munoz moved quickly to secure new labor agreements, and the airline started working to improve communication, collaboration and efficiency. And now this PR nightmare, amplified 10 million times with a viral video.

Munoz’s first attempts to deal with the matter flopped badly. A slew of disparaging images hit Facebook and Twitter and enjoyed viral traction. People started wondering if Munoz himself should be “re-accommodated” out of the CEO role. Eventually, the company announced 10 substantial changes to how it flies, serves and respects its customers, all as a result of United Express Flight 3411 on April 9.

United committed to 10 changes, including to limit use of law enforcement to safety and security issues only, not require customers seated on the plane to give up their seat involuntarily, and to increase customer compensation incentives for voluntary denied boarding up to $10,000. Passengers with permanently lost bags will also be offered $1,500 – no questions asked. One interesting twist is the deployment of a new “in the moment” app for flight attendants and gate agents later this year that will allow them to give customers miles or other compensation the moment a disservice occurs. So they’ll be offering carrots instead of sticks.

However, what needs to happen is something deeper – a shift in the awareness of every employee at the company, a shift from process compliance to compassion. Scientific research has shown that compassion can fuel creativity, build emotional resilience and help us achieve personal and professional goals. It can also transform customer experience to provide the foundation for success.

Tania Singer, director of neuroscience at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, has found that when we think compassionately, we use the same neural pathways as love. Because of this, we are nourished and the brain is primed for achievement. Research focused on a dopamine-processing gene known as DRD4, for instance, has shown that the more compassionate a classroom environment becomes, the greater the level of learning that occurs.

Charles Schwab CEO Walt Bettinger uses a compassion test during the interviewing process. Before every new hire, Bettinger takes candidates out for a breakfast interview. But what the potential employees don’t know is that every time, Bettinger shows up early and asks the restaurant to purposefully mess up the order in exchange for a handsome tip.  This way he can observe how the candidate reacts to something that has not gone according to script.  Are they upset, are they frustrated, or are they understanding? Life is like that, and business is like that too. “It’s just another way to look inside their heart rather than their head,” adds Bettinger. So, it becomes imperative to look inside candidates hearts and not just their minds in the hiring process and putting in a character test in that process is an insightful thing to do.  

Bettinger also relates a failure experience, from one of his last college exams, which ruined his pristine 4.0 average, that taught him how important it was to recognize individuals “who do the real work.” After spending hours studying and memorizing formulas for calculations, young Bettinger showed up to find that the exam was nothing but a blank sheet of paper. “The professor said, ‘I’ve taught you everything I can teach you about business in the last 10 weeks. But the most important message, the most important question, is this: What’s the name of the lady who cleans this building?”

Bettinger had no idea. He failed the exam and got a B in the class. “That had a powerful impact,” he said. “Her name was Dottie, and I didn’t know Dottie. I’d seen her, but I’d never taken the time to ask her name.”Bettinger shares that, since then, he’s “tried to know every Dottie I’ve worked with. It was a great reminder of what really matters in life.”

Engaging with customers in a fully present way allows you to tap into emotions and feelings, and to understand people as they are, rather than merely as statistics, personas, or abstract numerical profiles.  To become truly successful, we must engage to develop brands that are fully aligned with the deeper spirit of an intuitive heart, that inspire customers to join them in a higher purpose, that understand that every single person matters and deserves respect and dignity.

United Airlines has learned that blaming the victim was not the response expected of senior leadership. Munoz first released a terse and pale response likely required by the company legal team to prevent any admission of responsibility. However, he learned some pretty hard lessons over the last few weeks, and in his final statement, he finally delivers the required apology, “Every customer deserves to be treated with the highest levels of service and the deepest sense of dignity and respect. Two weeks ago, we failed to meet that standard and we profoundly apologize. However, actions speak louder than words. Today, we are taking concrete, meaningful action to make things right and ensure nothing like this ever happens again. Our policies got in the way of our values and procedures interfered in doing what's right. This is a turning point for all of us at United.”

It’s a lesson we should all learn well.

This article is by Jerome Conlon and Moses Ma – co-authors of Soulful Branding (AMZN). Jerome is a leading brand and business development consultant, focused on helping companies and brands implement innovative and soulful branding strategies and plans. They have pioneered the process of ethography – the systematic study of a brand's character.