Wednesday, July 22, 2009

United Airlines is Broken

by Tom Hinton

Perhaps you’ve seen the You Tube video entitled United Breaks Guitars by Dave Carroll. Dave serenades us with his composition about the United Airlines baggage handlers at Chicago O’Hare Airport who tossed around his expensive Taylor guitar (in its sturdy case) on the tarmac as he and other passengers looked out their airplane window in a state of shock and disbelief. Of course, when Dave Carroll and his band members arrived in Nebraska and retrieved their musical instruments from UAL’s baggage belt, they discovered his custom-made Taylor guitar was broken.

For nine months, Carroll tried unsuccessfully to resolve the matter with UAL. But, United Airlines representatives gave him the run-around and denied any responsibility for breaking his guitar. Frustrated by his experience, Carroll wrote a comedic song entitled United Breaks Guitars and posted it on You Tube. Carroll’s story has become a public relations nightmare for United Airlines. More than three million viewers have seen Carroll’s story-song and many have responded on You Tube and Twitter with their own horror stories about United Airlines. To make matters worse, several evening news programs have shared Carroll’s saga with millions of their viewers.

Succumbing to the negative public relations caused by Carroll’s song, UAL offered to repair his damaged guitar. However, Taylor Guitars of El Cajon, California, which hand-makes each instrument, beat UAL to the punch. They seized on Dave Carroll’s story immediately and contacted him offering to repair or replace his guitar. Bob Taylor, the brilliant owner and founder of Taylor Guitars, also made his own You Tube video to counsel musicians on how to care for their precious cargo when traveling by air. Taylor recommends not checking guitars, but instead, carry-on these items which is permissible by the TSA provided they can be stored aboard an aircraft.

While Dave Carroll and Taylor Guitars have come out winners, one must wonder what in the world United Airlines’ management was thinking? Did no one at United Airlines call a “time out” to ask colleagues, “Hey, how do we come out of this broken guitar scenario without egg on our face?” Sadly, this isn’t an isolated case at United Airlines. Acts of stupidity and customer abuse are repeated multiple times every day by a growing number of disingenuous United Airlines employees who lack common sense and do dumb things that alienate passengers and those hard-working UAL employees who are customer-focused. I’ve witnessed it personally in Chicago and Denver several times. Of course, it begs the obvious question -- why?

The answer is United Airlines is broken. Organizationally and culturally, UAL lacks a spirit of service. While the majority of UAL employees are dedicated, fair-minded people who give their best every day, a growing number of toxic UAL employees have been infected with the deadly workplace virus that is best described as “I don’t care!” Regrettably, this virus is spreading throughout UAL’s ranks and is spawning an attitude of disinterest and apathy from the top down. When the “I don’t care” virus seeps into the cultural blood stream of an organization the results are often fatal for the company. In the case of United Airlines, management must act quickly to curb the spread of the “I don’t care” virus and re-orient its employees in the ways of service, courtesy and empathy for customers, passengers and each other.

I am not recommending this action without careful consideration. In addition to interviewing many UAL passengers about their negative experiences, I’ve reviewed two key documents that tell me UAL is flying blind when it comes to customer relations and meeting the needs of its passengers. Consider UAL’s mission statement, which I could not find on its website or in any public documents that were easily accessible from UAL. However, a UAL representative told me that its mission statement reads, “To be recognized worldwide as the airline of choice.” This bland statement is ineffective and says nothing about the company’s commitment to its employees, customers, suppliers or profitability. UAL is operating with a very weak mission statement that offers employees no guidance on how to treat passengers and customers.

Secondly, I evaluated UAL’s Customer Commitment Document (CCD) which consists of 12 statements that provide greater clarity and insight as to how UAL employees should behave and respond to situations like the Dave Carroll broken guitar saga. Statements #3 and #4 of the CCD read: “Provide on-time baggage delivery” and “Provide a fair baggage liability limit.” CCD Statement #12 reads, “Respond quickly, appropriately and courteously to customer questions and complaints.” That’s positive, effective and clear.

Unfortunately, nobody Dave Carroll dealt with at UAL followed the airline’s CCD. If UAL was customer-focused and had trained its customer-contact employees to respond based on the CCD, the Dave Carroll problem might have never happened. However, once it happened, UAL employees should have relied on Statement 12 to guide them to a speedy and fair solution. By ignoring their CCD, it’s obvious that UAL employees do not know the CCD exists or they have been instructed to ignore them by management. In either case, the customer loses and, eventually, so does United Airlines.

My experience in dealing with broken companies like United Airlines is they often try to gloss over these negative incidents by dismissing them as an isolated customer service glitch or a training issue. Perhaps, this is why UAL is seeking permission to use Dave Carroll’s United Breaks Guitars as a customer service training tool for its employees. But, doing so is farcical. It’s akin to the captain of the Titanic ordering a pump to drain the water after the ship has struck the iceberg and the captain ignored all the warning signs.

My deeper concern is that United Airlines’ management doesn’t get it. Having worked with many companies to help them create a culture of excellence, I know from experience that what happened to Dave Carroll and his Taylor guitar goes far beyond an isolated customer service glitch. Frankly, it’s the result of a corporate cultural that pits employees against passengers because of outdated policies and procedures as well as verbal mandates from management not to spend money on customer complaints. In the short-term, the airline wins the battle but loses the war. Ultimately, customers realize they have a choice and they choose not to fly United Airlines. But, the damage in this case doesn’t stop with one passenger deciding not to fly UAL. In the Dave Carroll situation, millions of people who fly have been negatively influenced towards United Airlines and how it mistreats passengers. To compound UAL’s problems, those 3 million You Tube viewers are telling their friends and families to watch Dave Carroll’s United Breaks Guitars and then communicating via MySpace, Facebook and Twitter to tell the world how terrible United Airlines is. So much for UAL being the “airline of choice!”

Let’s not forget that every company has customer issues and gets complaints. However, best-in-class companies pounce on these moments-of-truth to practice the ABCDs of customer service -- going Above-and-Beyond-the-Call-of-Duty -- to win back customers. As Jim Nordstrom of Nordstrom Stores once told me, “Whenever we solve a customer’s complaint on the spot, we’ve not only fixed the problem at little cost to our company, but we’ve also earned that customer’s loyalty for life.” That’s why Nordstrom is noted for its outstanding customer service. It was also Jim Nordstrom who told me that "when you've discovered that you've made a hiring mistake, it's best to acknowledge your mistake and invite that person to move on to their next career." He added, “You can’t fix stupid!”

This raises another important point: toxic employees who abuse customers are not tolerated at best-in-class companies. I’m willing to bet those guilty baggage handlers who played football with Dave Carroll’s Taylor guitar are still on the UAL payroll at O’Hare Airport. Furthermore, I bet UAL will claim they are union employees and, therefore, their jobs are protected. But, such explanations are nonsense and only prove my point that management doesn’t get it. Furthermore, this attitude only serves to spread the deadly “I don’t care” virus. When an employee commits an egregious act that results in tarnishing the brand or damaging the company’s reputation, that employee should be terminated regardless of union rules. When toxic employees are sacked, it sends a strong message to the rest of the team -- champion customer service and protect our brand and image at all costs.

I actually had one UAL employee tell me that this entire problem was Mr. Carroll's fault because he failed to follow UAL's policies and guidelines for properly filing a damaged property claim. I rest my case!

When management turns a deaf ear to customer complaints and performance improvements, employees will follow management’s example; and, through subtle actions, employees disrespect their customers. Sometimes it’s unintended. But, more often than not, it’s blatant misbehavior. This is why the baggage handlers at O’Hare Airport thought is was okay to play football with Dave Carroll’s guitar. This is why the flight attendants aboard Dave Carroll’s airplane ignored his pleas to stop the baggage handlers’ from tossing his guitar case on the tarmac. This is why the baggage claims representative in Nebraska dismissed his claims when he reported his guitar broken. Countless other UAL employees gave Dave Carroll the cold shoulder for nine months. It wasn’t until he sang his song on You Tube that United Airlines decided to recognize the legitimacy of his claim and respond to his concerns. But, mind you, United Airlines was only reacting to the negative public relations caused by Carroll’s song, United Breaks Guitars. I doubt they acted out of a sense of customer concern or a spirit of service because UAL has no such corporate credo to guide its employees.

Broken companies seldom get it. It wasn’t United Breaks Guitars that should have prompted United Airlines to act and resolve Dave Carroll’s problem. It should have been United Airlines’ compassion, empathy and concern for a loyal passenger whose livelihood was disrupted because UAL’s baggage handlers abused his property. But, when the “I Don’t Care” virus infects employees, nobody gives a damn and bad things happen.

Ironically, the Dave Carroll incident could have been nipped in the bud by an attentive and understanding UAL flight attendant aboard his flight or a senior baggage handler representative at his destination who knew and practiced CCD #12. But, in a broken company, passengers like Dave Carroll get bounced around from one customer service rep to the next -- just like his Taylor guitar. In Carroll’s case, he let his broken guitar tell his story to millions of You Tube viewers who are now disgusted with United Airlines and will probably choose to fly a competitor given the option.

It would do UAL’s senior management good to revisit the first law of profitability -- acquire and maintain your customers! If this credo was part of UAL’s mission statement or guiding principles, incidents like Dave Carroll’s broken guitar would not mushroom into a public relations disaster for United Airlines.

About the Author. Tom Hinton is president of CRI Global, LLC, an international training and consulting firm that helps companies achieve a culture of excellence. Mr. Hinton is the author of four books including The Spirit of Service. He is also a frequent air traveler and supports the Airline Passengers’ Bill of Rights that languishes in Congress due to opposition from airlines including United Airlines. He can be reached at

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