‘United Airlines is so famous for its PR disasters that there is a special word for them: Snafuniteds’

What happens when a company wants to change its dubious customer service experience? Smaller companies can effect sweeping changes relatively quickly, given scale of the operation and general ability to be nimble. Large companies face much more complex and costly challenges because, generally speaking, they are unable to change on a dime. Let’s look at some challenges and solutions.

This is from an Inc.com article about United’s bad PR stemming from customer service disasters. The article points out that negative reports impact share prices, so “you’d think the airline would be on top of things like this by now…It isn’t, so it’s logical to wonder: Why not?”

The article continues: “Original research carried out by McKinsey & Company reveals that the failure rate for organizational change projects has ranged at a staggering 60 to 70 percent since the 1970s…Change Is Costly…At its most formal, change is a redirection of mental, physical, and psychological resources to do some things differently. At an organizational level, this means that processes that are in place and already working have to be modified, assessed, and refined. In a worst-case scenario, they have to be abandoned, redrawn, and implemented from scratch.

“Organizational change requires communication, training, systems development and implementation, and the tweaking and assessment of processes across the board. It is a sizable investment that eats into the bottom line.”

The moral of this story seems to be: The bigger you are, the harder you fail when it comes to customer service problems and the consequent inevitable hit to your reputation and bottom line. While this is disconcerting for behemoths like United Airlines, it should be reassuring for smaller companies able to effect change in an agile fashion.

In essence, you can efficiently improve negative customer service because the requirements are less daunting and complicated than with larger companies.

Of course, to do this requires an enlightened mindset and the drive to improve. Notes the Inc. article about the commitment needed: “The cost becomes even higher when we begin to consider what it takes to successfully change hearts and minds — attitudes and ways of thinking — across your entire organization. You need a clear understanding of the rules and regulations, operating procedures, mission statement, values, and vision…Change, in order to stick, requires a detailed, top-down approach backed by a sustainable plan with clear checks and rewards.”

At first, this can feel like trying to eat the elephant in one bite. Here are tips to get started that are manageable, realistic and hopefully sustainable:

  • Open up the vault. Your workforce, customers, suppliers and other stakeholders are a treasure trove of good information and valuable insights. Mine this knowledge through discussions that encourage candid disclosure about ways to improve. For customers, drill down with a targeted group of individuals in one-on-one interviews instead of putting all your eggs in the “short survey” basket. Together, with data gathered through such means as surveys and customer service reviews, a clear picture will start to emerge about what’s wrong, what’s right, and what to do to make customer service better.
  • Tell stakeholders what you’re doing to “atone.” This country is very forgiving when companies admit they’ve screwed up and are working to fix problems. The incessant gobbledygook about an already stellar product or service falls on deaf ears when the company is beset with negative reports and reviews. The only thing worse than poor customer service is when it’s paired with exclamations of great customer service that aren’t supported.
  • Establish robust, reliable ways to rate customer service going forward. While you’re assessing and addressing present problems, institute systems to gather ongoing opinions in the moment. If I were in charge of United Airlines’ customer service, one immediate move would be to hand out a short evaluation form while en route, and ask people to complete it right away. In addition to writing out responses, an option printed on the form would be to complete it online, via text, or through email. The idea here is two-fold: Show people you mean business when it comes to improving; and do it in the moment when opinions and insights are strongest and freshest.

Got “Snafuniteds” in your organization? As reviews, ratings and viral social media sharing continue to evolve, companies able and willing to establish stellar customer service policies will fare much better in terms of public opinion and profitability.

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Mark Lusky is a veteran writer, storyteller and author, with 40+ years of public relations, advertising, marketing and journalism experience.

Author of A Wandering Wondering Jew… and co-author of Don’t Get Mad, Get Leverage,  Mark (aka The Happy Curmudgeon) is the owner of a Denver-based marketing communications firm.

2 Thoughts

  1. Good article. I’ve not heard of the phrase, SNAFUnited. My take on customer service surveys is, meh. In order to be effective, they need to be specific and detailed and that takes time that I, for one, don’t want to spend. Selfish, I know.

  2. I’ve not heard of the phrase, SNAFUnited. Toque! That stings.
    My opinion of most CS surveys is meh. To be effective, they need to be detailed, and that takes time that I, for one, don’t want to spend. Especially if I think it’s a waste of time.

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