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Customer Service Lessons for Entrepreneurs from United Airlines

Customer service lessons for small business owners
Entrepreneurs can often take lessons from big companies about how to do certain things. When it comes to customer service, United Airlines has provided a treasure trove of lessons that small business owners should embrace. Not necessarily to follow, but learn from!

It took millions of outraged comments and
nearly $1 billion in lost stock value


Few companies have been so prominently, and so negatively, in the news with stories about customer issues than the United has over the last several months. And each instance, seemingly, could have been avoided.

It started back in March when they wouldn’t allow two young girls in their early teens board a flight because they were “improperly dressed.” They were wearing yoga pants, which, in case United hadn’t noticed have been worn by women of all ages and sizes, for years, to every conceivable event, including air travel.

About a month ago, they followed this one up with the, now infamous, dragging of a doctor off the plane after he refused to give up his seat because the United’ flight was overbooked. It turns out it wasn’t; a United crew needed the seats because they had to be at the flight’s destination. And to this the United CEO, not only, initially, failed to apologize, but sought to justify. It took millions of outraged comments and nearly $1 billion in lost stock value for the airline’s leadership to issue a sincere and appropriate apology.

Earlier this month they ejected a man and woman on their way to be married in Costa Rica because they had the temerity to change their seats when another sleeping passenger occupied theirs. And finally, just last week they charged a returning serviceman from Afghanistan $200 because his checked duffel bag was overweight.

Come fly the friendly skies? Indeed! Has any company that deals with consumers, on a daily basis, ever been this “tone-deaf?”

United has become the “poster child” for an industry where bad customer service is becoming the norm, by allowing their objective of operational excellence to overcome what drives their business…the customer! It has turned its customer facing people into, at best, decent people trying to execute on bad policies and, at worst, “robots,” with no discernible authority and discouraged from ever, heaven forbids, thinking on their own!

But as I’ve noted, there are powerful customer service lessons to be learned from all the negative they’ve accomplished over the last few months. Here are five lessons that, while United hasn’t discovered them, by their actions, they are teaching you how to service your customers better:


Customer service has to be more than a slogan.

“Come fly the friendly skies” has been, off and on since 1965, a United company theme and advertising tagline. Their recent history certainly doesn’t exude a “walk the talk” on that theme.

Customer service can’t just be a slogan. It has to be part of the culture of a company. And everybody has to believe it and live it, every day, from the CEO to the person mopping the floors.

Virtually, every company says it is customer-focused or customer-centric. The number who act on it are far fewer. Entrepreneurs and small business owners have to live and evangelize the message of the importance of the customer to the business so that both employees and customers feel it.

You can’t legislate customer service.

In response to the major customer fiasco of dragging the doctor off the plane, United announced ten new policies and procedures; some would cause an inevitable “duh” reaction; others were almost laughable in their corporate-speak and their lack of sensitivity to the real problem.

To make a difference, United has to, fundamentally, change their approach to customer service—not just implement some new policies.

While every company needs policies and procedures, it’s not about creating a set of rules, but creating an attitude that will help to execute those rules. Customers are not a burden. They are the reason the business exists. A company has to always “go the extra mile” to understand and service them. And customer service policies have to be driven by that concept.

To instill that you need always to keep customer service people trained. The one policy United announced that did make the most sense, was more customer service training for their front-line staff. That’s critical, so long as the training is about better servicing the customer and not just about better following the procedures.

Treat your employees better and know the link between employees and customers.

I’ve said it many times before. Employees will treat customers exactly the way they are treated. If you happened to have flown United when the integration with Continental was taking place you probably remember how testy most of the customer-facing employees were. Nobody knew whose job was safe. They were just pieces on the board and were simply reacting to how they were being treated.

You want to treat customers extra special; treat employees extra-special. And its foundation is respect, empathy, and mutual trust. Respect your employees as people first, then as employees. Know they have lives outside of your business. Try to understand them better. Know they have bad days just like you do.

Finally, create an environment of mutual trust, where employees know that what you say is what you mean and expect the same of them. And remember, that building trust building comes through actions and attitudes, not through policies and procedures. But also know that if you treat employees with respect, empathizing with them as human beings and creating an environment of mutual trust, that will be the basis for how they will treat your company’s customers.

Give employees the ability to make decisions

“I don’t make the rules; I just follow them.” How often have you heard a customer service employee say that?

Critical to good customer service (or any other employee function for that matter) is giving employees the authority to carry out their job. Most small businesses define an employee’s role and responsibilities, but few give them much power to carry them out; lest they make a mistake!

And here’s the “dirty little secret” - when you define an employee role and responsibilities and give them sufficient authority to carry them out, you can hold them accountable.

So, if you want to improve customer service, make the employees part of the equation. Give them the power to make some decisions. Or, to maybe even think!

How about the United situation with the serviceman coming back from combat duty? Suppose the customer service person could think a little and make the “right” decision to waive the $200 baggage fee that would get paid back in long-term customer loyalty? Short-term, drop in the bucket; long-term, a happy, appreciative customer for life.

Continually, get and use customer feedback to help you stay focused.

With social media nearly driving the PR bus, it’s hard to gauge what customers are feeling. You need to go to them and ask. Survey your customers, early and often. And if you’ve had some known problems, don’t be afraid to ask them how that has affected your relationship with them, for now, and for the future. Help them teach you about the problems you’ve had and whether they feel you’ve dealt with them appropriately.

But as important, help them tell you about problems you were not aware of or the depth of such problems or issues. Ask for their advice about how you might better solve those and avoid those in the future.

And, finally, learn what CUSTOMERS think you’re doing well and determine ways to both emphasize and build on those, with current and future customers.

While big brands often provide some useful lessons for entrepreneurs and small business owners, rarely has a company like United provided such “front and center” examples of “what not to do.” Hopefully, with the five customer service lessons we’ve taken from them, it can you to better develop and maintain your customer relationships.

"The Entrepreneur's Yoda" knows these things. He's been there. May success be with you!

Have you ever experienced a negative big company experience that has given you a roadmap for how to do something better in your business? Please share your thoughts in the comments below. It can help another entrepreneur or small business owner.

If you like this post, by all means, share it with your networks and colleagues.


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