Welcome to the 21st Century: United’s expensive customer service mistake

Disclaimers: I am not a fan of country music; I have flown United; I am a customer advocate

In the spring of 2008, United followed its Terms and Conditions – i.e. , their fine print, their internal customer service policies – to their bottom-line minded detriment, and refused to reimburse a customer $3,500 for damage to his guitar incurred during the loading of the plane. The customer, Dave Carroll sings his story better than I can write it:

I guarantee you that this mistake will end up costing the company more than the $3,500 replacement value of the guitar. By the time the original incident handling went through the hands of the flight attendants, agents on the phone, supervisors, meetings, and policy review, and now the PR department, you’re talking thousands of dollars. Add the cost of poor word of mouth, unwanted publicity, and you’ve got a problem that will be talked about in customer support circles for years. And I mean years.

Company policy aside, should United have reimbursed its passenger?  In hindsight, most definitely. And now, with all of this unwelcome publicity, they have to. In the new world of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, a company must think twice about whether its 20th Century rules and regulations apply to the nano-second, at-your-fingertips, in-your-face reviews of just about everything and anyone under the sun.

Sure, United started with an obligatory vague policy – United’s Delayed and damaged baggage information – and quickly forgot to add the most important ingredient for customer service success – humanity. You can have the fairest policies in the world, but if you forget to add common sense and a personal touch, well, you’re already probably no stranger to unhappy customers.

So, should United have taken these YouTube possibilities into consideration when reviewing Carroll’s case? Yes. Should customer support staff be trained to know when an incident escalates beyond their control and when looking beyond internal policy might be the way to go. Absolutely. Should all companies review their customer service policies with the viral 21st Century in mind? They’d be foolish not to.

Sure, once the publicity started to hit the fan, United tweeted that they were ready to make good on the damage. But, Carroll is having none of that. It’s just plain too late for that, plus he hasn’t yet uploaded his follow-up song to YouTube.

My last question is whether or not United reprimands its staff for errors like this. The baggage handlers who tossed the equipment freely about did so because they knew that United’s policies covered their asses. Trust me, once United makes its staff accountable, then it will be much easier for them to work on getting their customer support in tune with the needs of today’s savvy customers.

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