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United and the World of Robots

Frank Eliason

Originally published by Frank Eliason on LinkedIn: United and the World of Robots

If your Facebook and LinkedIn feed is anything like mine, it is filled with all kinds of commentary on the latest fiasco by United Airlines. In many ways, it is already becoming tiresome. At the same time you have to admit there is an interesting fascination with this topic and if you engage in the conversation it can lead you down many paths that impact the way each of us going about our job. As an example, my friend Augie Ray from Gartner Research wrote this a piece titled "United Airlines and the Dollars and Cents of Customer Experience." It is a good, realistic look at this from a CX perspective.

As many of you know, United has issued yet another apology on the topic, this time saying some of the things that should have been said from the start. Unfortunately, they did forget to acknowledge their own mishandling up until that apology. I tend to always think the first way you handle something shows the true culture of the brand. All of that is a conversation for another day. I wanted to take a moment to point out a different observation. This came up during a dialogue on Facebook with friends Jason Falls and Chris Heuer. The original post was looking at the victim shaming being done in this situation, which we all agree was horrible and inappropriate. The victims past had nothing to do with anything. But as with many of these conversations, it drifted back to United's actions. Chris inspired me to put on my operations hat a take a fresh look at it and how it relates to other businesses. It was a take that I thought was worth writing a little bit more about.

Do you think this situation could happen within your business? I would hope that most of you would answer no, but there is a reality it could. We have made most jobs in the marketplace completely process driven. There is very little empowerment to drift outside the process in many companies. We also frown upon escalating situations that fall outside the process. We often become accusatory at the person escalating it. So let's take a step by step look at what happened. The plan boards and all is well. Then there is a call or someone coming to the gate agent saying you must get these crew members on the plane. It is a priority. I would guess they then walked away or got off the phone. The airplane staff asked for volunteers. Of course, it is a Sunday night and many people probably have a place to be on Monday morning, so no one accepts. They increase the offer and still no one accepts. They then threaten to randomly select people and ask again if anyone is willing to accept the current offer. No one does. At this point, the process says randomly select people, so that is what they do. Now, remember everyone is already onboard the plane. The crewmember does whatever the process calls for to select 4 people. I am sure many are suspicious of the means to determine the 4 people, but I am sure it is in the process. They then go to the 4 select people and ask them to leave. I am sure each was angry along the way and most likely voiced that, suspicious as to why they were selected. But they reluctantly get off the plane, probably vowing never to return to the airline. Then there is one who actually deviates from the process and says they are not getting out of the seat they paid for. Now, this creates a problem! Oh wait, we have a process for that! Remember everyone is to follow crewmember instructions, and this person is not following crewmember instructions so I have to call security. A call is made. The security agents are dispatched, probably told to remove this person because they are not following crewmember instructions. They probably instruct the person to leave, and he says no, I paid for this seat. Again I am assuming much of this but it seems feasible to me. So based on the orders from the security dispatch, the security officers remove the person by the means they know how, using force to carry the man. Fingers will point to the Department of Transportation Officer, but I would bet that he was doing his job in the manner he was supposed to. All of this was following the process. We did not look at anything outside the box or how someone would feel being told they must leave the flight so other people who work for the company can take their place. It was all about the process.

Now think about at your company or possibly even your job, how many decisions are made each day that are all about the process? Do you ever have Customers deviate from the process? What is your opinion of Customer that deviate from the process? Are they the lunatic fringe? Do you permit your own employees to deviate from the process when it is the right thing to do? How are your employees treated if they escalated something they could not handle? Is it assumed that they are not performing their job? In many operations departments that is the automatic assumption. The problem to all this is your Customer does not have a copy of the process. They are going to react in human ways. Some, like those Customers who got off the plane, will yield that way. Others might not. I know I would be going ballistic online as well as emailing the CEO if this were happening to me.

If you even look at the initial responses to this situation, each followed the standard playbook we have seen so many times before with United. Even the CEO's initial statement. Look at them further! They were designed not to take fault for the incident, just the part that the airline did control, which was the re-accommodate. The initial response from the company made sure to take all human emotion out of the equation. In business, we frown on human emotion. Oh, except the email to employees. Why because it is important we show our employees that we support them. Ultimately they should support the employees but take fault for the poor process and not empowering the employees to actually find a different situation.

We have all become robots in many ways. Most companies I interact with them act like robots in everything they do. The problem is human are not robots. Your Customers are not robots. They are human beings and want to be treated as human beings. There is something in the United situation that we can all learn from. What I would encourage is learning the importance of empathy, respect, and empowerment. Most processes have none of these built into them. This is why we can all laugh at United, but realize it could easily be your brand too.