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Improving customer service: attitude vs. money

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.

United Airlines keeps finding new ways to avoid improving their customer service. As if money, time and red tape weren’t daunting enough challenges, now United’s CEO is on the record doubting that his airline can make people happy.

A recent Absurdly Driven column in Inc. Magazine frames his skepticism: “Still, in a recent interview with ABC News, United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz intimated that there’s really nothing his airline can do to make passengers happy. He said: ‘It’s become so stressful from when you leave, wherever you live, to get into traffic, to find a parking spot, to get through security. Frankly, by the time you sit on one of our aircraft … you’re just pissed at the world.’…Munoz added that no cookie or smile could make passengers feel better.”

The article continues: “Oddly, his belief seems to be shared by other members of his management team…It was moving, then, when Munoz’s views were put to Delta CEO Ed Bastian by Marketplace. His response was, well, quite direct: ‘I disagree. Those certainly aren’t Delta customers he’s speaking to.’… Munoz may be right that the rigors of travel, the tiresome nature of security procedures and, frankly, the minimal space airlines give passengers — especially in Economy Class — don’t encourage those passengers to delight in flying. This doesn’t mean, however, that a business can’t still motivate its staff to provide something if not exceptional, then certainly better than mundane or even defeatist.”

Finally, the point is made that “Sheer thoughtfulness — which, yes, might include a cookie, a smile, a shared joke or a proactive helping hand — can make the difference between a pleasant customer experience and a dreadful one.”

I totally agree with the author on this issue. Many times, it’s the “little niceties” that can turn a frown into a smile. Conversely, a seemingly small slight can do just the opposite. My personal experiences attest to this on a regular basis.

Yes, traffic sucks, the experience in the airport is generally less than satisfying, and the planes themselves typically resemble a crowded cattle car. But, one friendly nod from a flight attendant or extra courtesy from a fellow passenger can make a big difference.

I believe that much customer service success or failure lies in the small extras or deficits. Evidently, so does Southwest Airlines. With a few exceptions, they get high customer service marks. The entire booking and payment process is, as far as I’m concerned, user-friendly. Rebooking without paying penalties, checking two bags for free, and a knowledgeable, helpful customer support team make me feel much better about flying.

This attitude is why I fly Southwest anywhere I can. I’ll pay more money to fly on Southwest. I’ll even tolerate extra connections and time to avail myself of their brand of customer service.

In contrast, I will be hard-pressed to fly United anytime soon. Their “unfriendly skies” years ago fomented intense dislike and dissatisfaction. It’s too bad, because when I was a kid, United was the gold standard.

Perhaps the best place for United to make customer service improvements right away is to change the attitude at the top—and do their best to make it filter down through the ranks.


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.

One reply on “Improving customer service: attitude vs. money”

You are absolutely right about the little things that make a difference…a big difference.
It’s also true that a positive attitude at the top will have a much greater impact on employee attitudes-and therefore how they treat customers.

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