Lessons United Airlines could learn from the car business

“A complaint is a gift,” say outstanding service providers. They recognize that how they respond to any complaint can potentially grow the depth of their relationship with customers.

United Airlines CEO Oscar Nunez should be a very happy man if he believes in this philosophy.

He has unfortunately learned that life can be filled with irony. March 16 was a red-letter day for Nunez, when he was named Communicator of the Year by PR Week U.S. Magazine.

The award touted that his “strategy from day one has been to reconnect with employees and customers.”

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That focus is indeed a noble aspiration – to foster a culture where both employees and customers feel valued and appreciated.

Just 23 days later, his airline – and he, as well – experienced a firestorm of epic proportions by mishandling how to persuade four passengers to move to a flight the next day. This led to the horrific video of a doctor being forcibly removed from a United flight. His face was covered with blood.

“Fly the Friendly Skies” suddenly changed from being a clever advertising slogan to becoming a viral joke online. Late-night TV hosts and media commentators nationwide vilified United’s poor handling of the situation.

Customer service is a high priority in every business today, representing a key reason why patrons choose whether to return to a business.

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Here are five lessons United Airlines and its beleaguered CEO could learn from the top performers in the automotive industry:

1. Apologize for the inconvenience to your customer. He or she did not plan the day around an extra service visit, canceled flight or missed deadline. In the words of our fellow Rotarian, JPS CEO Robert Earley, “Own the situation.”

2. Move at the speed of light with a smile. Customers realize that every business will experience challenging moments. Customers expect to be treated in a fair and compassionate manner that respects them and their inconvenience. We need to greet the situation as an opportunity to strengthen our relationship with that customer so we need to move quickly to offer the best possible solution gladly rather than begrudgingly.

3. The first few minutes are your golden moments. Your customer expects a fair resolution right now, not later. How you choose to respond quickly defines who you are and how you treat your customers. Remember, your response is a choice you make.

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4. Figure how far you would go if pushed to the limit, and then go there gladly and immediately. Making an unacceptable initial offer and then, after multiple rejections by the customer, finally offering an acceptable solution damages your relationship with that customer. The trust and bond are gone. You know early in the conversation what will be a satisfactory resolution, so escalate to that level and protect your relationship with that customer and all the people in his/her center of influence.

5. Your response to any past mistakes has already earned you a reputation: Make this situation even better. If you have earned your customers’ trust through your timely and appropriate responses in the past, then good for you. If you have previously fallen short, then look upon this experience as your opportunity to regain that trust and enhance your relationship with that customer as well as your overall reputation.

Your reputation is a critical element in the power of your company’s brand. Customers understand whether they can trust you. They discover the lengths to which you will go to satisfy them. They learn more about the reliability of your product or service.

Individuals use these three criteria to determine whether to remain your customer. The dissatisfied leave and share their frustrations with others.

The most loyal become your ambassadors because they advocate for you, recommending their friends, relatives and associates to you.

A complaint is a gift. How you choose to respond to that complaint defines who you are, your reputation and the future of your business.

Mac Churchill has been helping North Texans solve their transportation problems for over 30 years.