Last week, United Airlines became the poster child for the worst customer service of all time.
Dr. David Dao is now a household name, after video of him getting bloodied and dragged screaming from a seat he paid for went viral. What followed was a further series of blunders from one of the world's largest airlines.
Researchers say the company's consumer perception levels are now at a 10-year low. But United should actually see this as a great opportunity.
Why? To sum it up in one sentence:
United's recent disaster is a chance for the company to reinvent itself.
Look, it's yet to be seen if this incident will truly affect United's bottom line in the future.
But that's not really the point.
The airline industry as a whole has developed a very unsavory reputation. The largest carriers seem to be competing for who can treat customers the worst--by taking away perks like free checked luggage (and even carry-ons) and charging you to sit with your children--in an effort to further increase profits.
Further, United has been lagging behind the competition for years. According to surveys by J.D. Power (published in The Wall Street Journal), United Airlines has come in last or second-to-last over the past four years, when compared to other traditional network carriers. (United has similarly trailed competitors for years in both financial and operating performance.)
But what if United used this debacle as a catalyst, as the wake-up call the company needed to reverse the trend?
For example, imagine the results if United Airlines could do the following:
1. Make drastic changes in the customer experience.
Instead of competing to see how they can create the greatest profit margin, United should be striving to offer customers the best possible flying experience.
The airline could:
- begin offering more and better food options
- give out free perks, like the small amenity kits business class passengers receive
- dramatically increase the compensation it offers potentially bumped passengers, to surpass that of its competitors
The operational cost for these minor upgrades would be a small investment compared to the increase in goodwill from passengers.
2. Learn from Virgin America.
In the years since it was founded by entrepreneur extraordinaire Richard Branson, Virgin America won several "best airline" awards and developed an extremely loyal and enthusiastic following.
Last year, Virgin America was purchased by Alaska Airlines, who proceeded to retire the brand and is attempting to integrate its successful practices (much to the chagrin of Branson).
United could take more than one page out of Virgin's playbook. In fact, why not hire one of Virgin's executives, and use his or her experience to help turn around the customer experience?
3. Get David Dao on its side.
In addition to all of this, United Airlines should settle as soon as possible with the victimized passenger, Dr. David Dao. In fact, the company should do more than apologize; they should thank him for helping to expose weaknesses in both the company and industry. In addition to giving him whatever millions he seeks in damages, they should offer him and his family a lifetime, first-class pass on the airline--and whatever else he wants--in order to turn him into an advocate.
Imagine a commercial featuring David Dao, praising United Airlines and the changes they've made.
Now that would make an impact.
The key is, for years United has been at the bottom of an industry that people already don't like. This is the company's chance to flip the script, to rewrite their story.
Instead of, "United has the worst customer service ever," it could become, "United had the worst customer service ever, until that major incident. Now it's simply the best."
Every successful company has committed major mistakes. What separates them from their competitors, is how they respond to those mistakes.
Now's your chance, United. Show us what you're made of.