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The United Airlines Debacle:
How to Create a Brand Crisis in 11 Easy Steps

At the risk of piling on, it is hard to resist joining the dialog regarding Sunday’s viral United Airways videos. In fact, this situation is such a striking example of how to create a brand crisis that it has to be discussed. Perhaps a satiric approach will prove useful…

How to Lose Customers and Negatively Influence All Other Audiences

1. Make sure your employees are surly and rude to customers. If new hires turn out to be customer-friendly, reassign them to other posts or add hours and job responsibilities until they reach the appropriate anger level. A high degree of expressed verbal rudeness, and dismissive body language is desirable. This will ensure that customers respond negatively to surveys and post negative comments on line, as well as engendering negative word of mouth.

2. Increase customer discomfort by making them wait for services they have already paid for.  Remember: “Do your best—increase their stress.” For instance, airline companies should hold people on the runway for hours for no particular reason. Cable, phone or other service providers should add fees and ensure service is not always available or patchy in nature. This approach will further assure customer fury and negative word of mouth.

3. Crowd, cramp and trap. For years, many airlines have successfully employed this strategy: crowd the highest possible number of people into a limited space, make sure they can barely move, and you have a neatly confined customer. Remember: a trapped, immobile customer is less likely to get in the way of employees and other necessary functions. This crowd control strategy is augmented by subpar food, crusty seats and various service emergencies pertaining to 40-year-old aircraft.

4. Keep customers uninformed. The goal is to keep customers in the dark, so that they are unprepared for further issues. In terms of service downtime and outages, less information is the best strategy. This is a perfect way to help people jump to conclusions and to either become frustrated or angry. Thus, they are less likely to use your services, especially those services that they may have paid for.

5. Remember: a particularly egregious customer incident may go viral and create a lot of publicity for your organization. Being noticed is the gold standard! Even bad publicity is still publicity. Yelling at or berating the customer can be useful. Staging a physical attack on a vulnerable customer in a crowded setting (with lots of witnesses, preferably including school-age children and horrified parents or teachers) is probably a better strategy. Viral is the goal. 

6. Take actions that portray your organization’s true racist, ageist (and other massively bigoted) tendencies. United Airlines’ “random” choice of a 69-year old Asian MD illustrates this perfectly. Remember that some customers are less worthy than others and you will be closer to reaching your organizational goals. In lieu of racist selection, choose those who paid the least for their seat or service and give them “priority booting.”

7. Profits over all! To maximize profits, overbook appointments, flights, and any other in-demand services whenever possible. Again, this will also elicit the desired effect of customer discomfort, along with a much higher bottom line. A win-win strategy.

8. De-professionalize services whenever possible to save on salary costs. In lieu of hiring professionally trained police personnel, look to hire security guards and fail to train them in de-escalation techniques. Hospitals, for instance, should hire fewer doctors and nurses and more health care technicians. In all cases, make sure their uniforms appear official so that customers will not notice a change in services.

9. The organization comes first! The United Airlines approach sets a very high standard. If your employees need to fly somewhere, this is far more important than customer satisfaction. Bumping select individuals from flights is the ideal approach. If the customers are not cooperative, you may pay them a small amount of service-in-kind (for example, pay de-planed customers in “United Dollars” that they may only use for your company’s services, with restrictions, of course).

10. Deny and lie whenever possible. Use appropriate impact-free language, including double speak and corporate legalese. Let them know that you really don’t care. See United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz’ “Re-accommodate” statement for a fine example, and the follow-up Munoz statement regarding the “belligerent” passenger as a perfect way to disclaim all responsibility (or interest) in defusing any public backlash. Similarly…

11. Your branding statement and premise should be completely untrue. From “friendly skies” to “farm fresh” to “beyond petroleum,” anything that leads to customer false hope is a move in the right direction.

Should your efforts towards truly poor service be less than successful, remember, a little inconvenience goes a long way to annoying the customer. And the more inconvenient, the better. 

 

Update 04.27.17: United Airlines announced policy changes aimed at avoiding “involuntary denial of boarding” incidents like Dr. Dao’s, in which he suffered a concussion, broken nose and loss of teeth. New booking and boarding procedures will include a new $10,000 cap on financial incentives to passengers voluntarily surrendering seats; requiring United employees to book seats at least an hour before boarding; an option for passengers to express willingness to surrender a seat during the check-in process; and not involving law enforcement unless it is a matter of safety or security. United also said it planned to reduce how much it overbooks flights, and set up a special customer call center to help resolve overbooking and denial of boarding situations. United’s board of directors also announced that chief executive Oscar Munoz would not be promoted to chairman as previously planned, and that executive incentives would be tied to progress in improving customer experience.

None of this will matter unless customer-facing United employees are trained in how to de-escalate passenger confrontations… and given strong reasons why they should care. Corporate culture has to reward good customer service practices throughout the organization, not just in the C-suite.

To all of you traveling by air: fly safely.

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