Using the United Fiasco to Flourish in the Future

//Using the United Fiasco to Flourish in the Future

Using the United Fiasco to Flourish in the Future

How many “experts” does it take to offer commentary and advice on a customer service catastrophe?

The apparent answer is, “All of them.”

This post, however, isn’t about what United Airlines did right or wrong on flight 3411. It is about the lessons you should learn and changes you need to make today to avoid alienating your current and potential customers in the future.

Why You Should Care

This was an incident no one wanted to happen. That reality should scare everyone who leads a business or team.

You can’t write off the entire incident as a few bad apples. The staff and crew working United 3411 didn’t wake up on Sunday, April 8 thinking, “Let’s make the world hate us because of our bad service.”

Likewise, the airport security officers weren’t looking for someone to injure. The passenger involved certainly wasn’t thinking, “My trip will be complete if I can be dragged off my flight and need reconstructive surgery.”

Lessons You Should Learn

Your business is an unfortunate turn of events on a slow news day from being the next viral sensation. Here are five lessons to take away from what happened on United 3411:

  1. How you do things is important. Airlines have involuntarily bumped passengers from flights since at least the 1950’s. In 2016, the numbers are less than 1 in every 10,000 United Airlines removed passengers at a rate of 0.43 times per 10,000 passengers. American and Southwest Airlines both had higher bump numbers and higher customer satisfaction ratings last year than United. When it comes to managing the customer experience, how you do it is crucial.
  2. You can follow the rules and still be wrong. United CEO Oscar Munoz probably earned points with his staff when he supported them for following procedures. Unfortunately, he made things worse with the public. In this case, the problem wasn’t that people didn’t follow the rules. It was that the rules were out of touch with what it takes to create a compelling customer experience.
  3. Your reputation matters. United’s current blunder is amplified by its past. The company refused to allow two teenage girls to fly on a non-revenue employee/family pass less than a month before this incident. Even though United was within its rights, public reaction was brutal. In 2009, singer Dave Carroll posted a song on YouTube titled, “United Breaks Guitars.” To date, it has logged over 17 million views and spawned two additional videos with over 2 million and 900 thousand respective views. Dave Carroll has even written a book and speaks around the world on the customer service lessons from his experience. Every screw up is magnified when you have a questionable reputation.
  4. Your true culture is revealed in the tough times. Munoz has taken responsibility for system failures that prevented front-line leaders from exercising common sense. His acknowledgements reflect a deeper problem – a culture where the company’s leaders believe that rules take precedence over common sense and compassion. Every company can show a positive culture when things go right. Your response when things go wrong is the true test.
  5. If your name is on it, you own it. None of the flight staff, crew, or security officers involved in this event were actually United employees. The flight was operated by Republic Airlines, a regional partner. The security officers worked for the Chicago Department of Aviation. It doesn’t matter. United Airlines is on the side of the airplane. They own every piece of the interaction. It’s the same with your company. It is still your responsibility if there is something wrong with your product or service … even if it was someone else’s error.

What To Do Now

The first thing you should do is to say a private “thank you” that your company has not spent the past week feeling the public’s wrath. After that, here are three ideas:

  1. Rethink what’s important. Results still rule, but the days of blind devotion to profit at any cost are gone. Flawless execution is the minimum to be in the game. Continuously improving the status quo will keep your product and service relevant, but even that is not enough. Every consideration of what’s important must include valuing people – all people including your customers, team members, and the whole of society.
  2. Refine every process and system. Process and system create habits, and your habits define your culture. Reexamine every area of your operation to ensure that it consistently and flawlessly turns your intention about what’s important into action.
  3. Refocus on leadership at every level. Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper famously said, “You manage things. You lead people.” The challenges you face to flourish in the future require more leadership than management. Now is the time to double down on your commitment to growing and empowering leaders to do what’s right.

The present should be guided more by the future than the past. You can learn from the United’s recent missteps to flourish. Isn’t it time to begin?


Randy Pennington is an award-winning author, speaker, and leading authority on helping organizations achieve positive results in a world of accelerating change. To bring Randy to your organization or event, visit , email, or call 972.980.9857.

By | 2017-04-16T16:27:51+00:00 April 16th, 2017|0 Comments

About the Author:

Randy Pennington

Randy Pennington is an award-winning author and a leading authority on helping organizations deliver positive results in a world of accelerating change. To learn more or to hire Randy for your next meeting, visit or call 972-980-9857.