MAY 3, 2017 – United airlines CEO Oscar Munoz testified in front of the House yesterday with representatives from other airlines. Recently, there have been a rash of customer service incidents that have resulted in PR nightmares for airlines. The most recent involved dragging a bleeding Dr. David Dao off a United flight after he was bumped on April 9.
During yesterday’s hearing, Munoz testified, “In that moment, for our customers and our company, we failed, and so as CEO, at the end of the day, that is on me.”
The United Reaction
That was a different sounding apology than what Munoz made on April 10, a day after the event:
This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United. I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers. Our team is moving with a sense of urgency to work with the authorities and conduct our own detailed review of what happened.
Unfortunately, this statement wasn’t enough. Some Twitter users reacted negatively to the use of the word “re-accommodate.” Cleveland Browns OT Joe Thomas posted a photo of him blocking an opposing player to the ground with the comment, “I had to ‘re-accommodate’ someone once.”
On April 11, Munoz issued yet another statement. This time, he seemed to get it right:
The truly horrific event that occurred on this flight has elicited many responses from all of us: outrage, anger, disappointment. I share all of those sentiments, and one above all: my deepest apologies for what happened. Like you, I continue to be disturbed by what happened on this flight and I deeply apologize to the customer forcibly removed and to all the customers aboard. No one should ever be mistreated this way…I want you to know that we take full responsibility and we will work to make it right.
On April 30, United quietly settled with Dr. Dao for an undisclosed amount. Their corporate attorney Thomas Demetrio said in a statement, “For this acceptance of corporate accountability, United is to be applauded.”
Overcoming PR Nightmares
The first step in winning back loyalty, and also market share, is admitting responsibility and apologizing for these types of PR Nightmares. While it seems like companies forget this fact, corporations are made up of people. Sometimes these people make mistakes or bad decisions while in their employ.
When a friend makes a mistake that somehow hurts us, we want to hear an apology. It is the first step toward repairing that relationship. The same is true when a business makes a mistake. If you want to repair a damaged relationship with your customers, then apologize first in clear, simple language. Don’t try to be smarter than your customers and use words or phrases with alternate-meanings. Just apologize.
The next step is to take definitive action and make it public. Let your customers know that this type of incident is not acceptable and you will punish those responsible.
Then create a plan that will prevent these types of incidents from ever happening again. Go public with your plan. Don’t just rely on a press release, hold a press conference and invite the media. Talk openly about how things went wrong before, and how your new procedure won’t let that happen in the future. Reassure your customers that it is safe to do business with you again and that they are your primary concern.
Finally, if a settlement is involved, be open about it. Often these announcements are left to corporate press releases. Hold a press conference and let your customers know that you’ve taken care of the customer involved. You don’t have to disclose the details of the settlement, just that it happened and that the company is taking responsibility. A settlement, after all, could be considered a form of good customer service. You’re making things right with an unhappy customer.
These steps will help prevent future PR nightmares from happening.
At the beginning of yesterday’s Congressional hearing, chairman of the House Transportation Committee Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa. said to all of the airlines present, “Something is broken…Seize this opportunity, because if you don’t we’re going to act and you’re not going to like it.”
So if the airlines don’t fix themselves from the inside, Congress may step in and fix them from the outside. Following the steps above, though, will start the process of putting the customer first. That will go along way toward restoring consumer confidence and loyalty.
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Bob Turner is a Digital Marketing Consultant with Social Flair Marketing.