My Customer Service & Communication Advice to the United CEO

My company serves nearly 3 million visitors a year.  Though we always try for 100% satisfaction, some customers are going to slip through the cracks and be dissatisfied.   Each year, I get maybe 10 visitors who are severely dissatisfied, think they were mistreated, want to call their Congressman, are going to sue me, etc. I would say that these complaints eventually land on my desk but I actually look at every single comment card and letter and review that we get from customers and personally am involved with every single complaint of any sort.  Anyway, 10 or so are severe issues with a very upset customer that get to me without having been resolved in the field.

Folks who are involved in customer service will tell you that of these complaints, there will likely be a range of blame.  In some cases we screwed up.  In some cases no one screwed up but there was a mismatch of expectations.  And in some cases the customer was acting like a total asshole and was entirely to blame for the whole affair.  Sometimes it is hard to parse out after the fact which case is which -- something I wrote about here.  When these major complaints get to me, here is my guide to how I respond:

When we screw up:   "I am very sorry we did a poor job and you had a bad experience.  I am going to personally investigate immediately and we are going to make changes so this does not happen again -- but in the mean time, I want to refund your money and give you a certificate for some free camping so you can come back in the future and give us another chance to serve you well."

When the customer broke the rules and acted like a total jerk:   "I am very sorry we did a poor job and you had a bad experience.  I am going to personally investigate immediately and we are going to make changes so this does not happen again -- but in the mean time, I want to refund your money and give you a certificate for some free camping so you can come back in the future and give us another chance to serve you well."

When the exact situation is unclear:    "I am very sorry we did a poor job and you had a bad experience.  I am going to personally investigate immediately and we are going to make changes so this does not happen again -- but in the mean time, I want to refund your money and give you a certificate for some free camping so you can come back in the future and give us another chance to serve you well."

In any of these cases, if the customer describes poor behavior by my employees, I will tell them that "the behavior you are describing is absolutely unacceptable and, as I said, I am going to investigate personally as soon as we get off the phone."  You don't have to admit the behavior.  It is common that angry customers will dress up a story with a few added descriptions of outlandish employee behavior that may not actually be what happened.  You will try to figure that out later in the investigation.   But give the customer as much as you can.  If the customer said the employee used profanity, then it is perfectly fine to say "you are right, ms. customers, use of profanity by our employees is absolutely unacceptable" even if you suspect the employee did no such thing.

Giving this very positive response to customers who may have been bad actors or may be exaggerating can be hard because my local managers want to get very mad at me -- "Warren, don't you understand, he was a BAD customer.  You can't reward him for being a BAD customer."  To which I will say:  "First, you and I have not talked so I don't know yet if he was truly a BAD customer.  We may be the ones who screwed up.  But second, even if they were bad in some way, I am not rewarding a bad customer, I am trying to avoid a bad Tripadvisor review which will sit there on the Internet forever like a turd you can't flush.  And third, you seem to be trying to teach this customer a lesson, and make them realize they have been bad.  Even if the customer is really a jerk, this is never, ever ever ever going to happen.  You will never ever convince a jerk that they are a jerk, because almost by definition jerks last self-awareness, so stop trying."

We do a lot of training on this.  I tell folks all the time that if we have a customer like this who gets to me, I AM going to apologize and AM going to give them a refund and AM going to give them some free camping.  It doesn't mean that I am undermining the folks in the field, it means that this is smart business practice, particularly in this age of Internet reviews.  I tell my managers that they are letting their ego and pride stand in the way of having a customer walk away more satisfied, and if they refuse to check their ego, they are delegating the task of being humble upwards to me.  And over time, the good news is that most of my managers have gotten the message and have started emulating me so fewer and fewer of these ever reach me, they are solved much earlier in the field.

Postscript:  The first reaction I get from other business people is -- "don't you get taken advantage of and give out refunds to people who are just posturing about bad service just so they can get a refund?" And my answer is "yes".  But recognize that we have had over $100 million in revenues in this company since I started it, and we have perhaps paid $500 or $1000 is false refunds, or about .001% of revenues. I don't think .001% is very much to pay for the very high customer satisfaction rate we have.  But you would be surprised at the number of people that just can't let it go.  I don't know what this is called psychologically, but I will give another example.  We have a number of sites where the entrance station is not staffed on certain days and payment is on the honor system.  I have people who work for me who really get upset with me, telling me I simply HAVE to staff that gatehouse because some people are not paying.  You are being CHEATED!  I say that I am perfectly aware people are not paying, but it costs, all-in, probably $120-$150 to have a person sit in that gatehouse for 8 hours.  In that time perhaps 15 cars will come in.  At $6 apiece, even if every single one of them is cheating (and they do not, we have very good compliance in most honor system locations) I would be paying $150 to collect an extra $90 of revenue.  That would be insane.  But somehow the thought of lost revenue just makes some people crazy, no matter how expensive it is to chase it down.


  1. Mercury:

    Buy the dip in UAL.

    Bottom line: they have a government protected monopoly and ever since 9/11 it is perfectly acceptable for high-school dropouts in $11 windbreakers to treat other people like long as they are acting in an official capacity connected to an airport, an airplane or just "Security" in general. There is no PR anything to see here. It doesn't matter. The End.

    For any of you under 40, the below is not a United Airlines training video but a bit of movie comedy circa 1980...back when the possibility of treating airline passengers (or the public in general) like this was considered so absurd and off-the-wall as to be laughable:

  2. Earl Wertheimer:

    Spelling errors will also "sit there on the Internet forever like a turd you can't flush"
    "definition jerks last self-awareness," s/b lack ??

  3. Bram:

    If you were tossing a paying customer who had a reservation off a campsite so your employees could use it... pretty sure that's your screw up. An intentional, purposeful screw-up that sends a message that you view your customers as peasants to be pushed around and intimidated.

    I see this less as a screw-up, more of a mask-slip really.

  4. Dave Boz:

    Regarding the effort to chase small amounts of revenue: as one of my early mentors in business told me, "Don't put a $100 collar on a $5 dog."

  5. ErikTheRed:

    Perfectly said.

  6. karl_lembke:

    Printing this out for my staff.
    I work in a division that handles, among other things, complaints about water quality. We get all three types of customer complaints.
    I also run hospitality for the occasional science fiction convention, and I've borrowed the motto: "Hospitality is the art of making people feel at home, even when you wish they were."

  7. Matthew Slyfield:

    On top of all the other problems with what United did to that passenger, It's clear from the videos posted by other passengers that the man tried to explain that:

    1. He was a doctor
    2. He had patients to see at a hospital first thing the next morning.
    3. Given 1 & 2 he could not afford the delay of taking a later flight.

    Instead of trying to verify his credentials, and picking another passenger to eject, they stuck to their guns and and violently ejected a doctor.

    Then they had to delay the flight another two hours so they could dispose of the physical evidence.

  8. Matthew Slyfield:

    Parody is dead.

    Trump is President of the United States.

    Nothing is so absurd that it couldn't possibly happen in real life. :)

  9. Todd Ramsey:

    Regarding United passenger removal: the Federal government has a law limiting the compensation that can be given for involuntarily denied boarding. I don't know whether United reached that upper limit, but it's a stupid pointless regulation that should be repealed. Regarding employee psychology: in my small retail business, I am amused and frustrated by the anger and fervor employees show towards someone shoplifting $5 worth of merchandise...while thinking nothing of using 30 minutes of my time daily chatting or being otherwise unproductive.

  10. Bill Setser:

    I am unclear as to whether Federal regs limit compensation that may be offered, or limit how high they are required to go? IE, are they forbidden from offering $2,000, or just not required to offer that much?

  11. Bill Setser:

    That excuse doesn't fly.

    What if the plane was delayed due to weather, or mechanical failure?

    Is it impossible to rent a car and make it from Chicago to Louisville (300 miles) in time for his next-day appointments?

  12. WesternRover:

    I understand that it's not cost effective to deny a payout to customers who act up just to get one. But do you consider the effect on your other customers, the good ones, who see that bad behavior is rewarded? Either they are encouraged to act up themselves, or if they aren't the type to ever do that, they still form a poor opinion of your company as one that enables bad behavior at your campgrounds.

  13. Mercury:

    If anything Trump is POTUS because parody is dead, not vice-versa.

  14. Don:

    On your last point re: expense of collecting a few dollars, I have seen over the years that people get very, VERY weird when money is involved in almost anything. My first experience was working for a video rental place just after high school. I had a boss that, if we were more than $.25 off in the till at the end of the day, would have employees stay there and check every single transaction as if staring at a register tape would tell you where somebody dropped a quarter or picked one out of the till and gave extra change. It would invariably take an extra hour (on the clock) and at the end of this drama, just go home, somebody would "pretend" to find a quarter or 3 under the counter, drop it in the till, add it to the balance sheet and we'd finally clock out and go home.

    Hell, my wife, who has a business degree, frequently talks about doing things that cost $10 to save $2, simply because she's focused on the $2 savings.

    I just chalk it up to people fixating on ends and forgetting about (or ignoring) means, and it seems to happen to people at all levels of experience and education.

    It's strange.

  15. Don:

    Or we're living in a world that _is_ parody, a parallel universe to the world of reason.

  16. Charles Harry:

    I would pay $100 to prevent $90 theft. In that way, I encourage people to make money through honest work, instead of cheating. This worth more than $10 per day for me.

  17. mx:

    There's no law limiting the compensation. There's a regulation that sets the amount of compensation that airlines have to offer if they involuntarily deny boarding due to overbooking (which isn't quite what happened here; they already boarded and didn't overbook, but rather wanted the seats for employees), but there's nothing that says the airline can't offer whatever they want to get a volunteer. $800 is not a whole lot given that the next flight wasn't until something like 3pm the next day. Offer $1,500 and a rental car (or better yet, a car service to do the driving) and I bet someone on that flight would have taken the deal. Everybody has a price.

  18. Matthew Slyfield:

    I wasn't commenting as to cause and effect.

  19. Matthew Slyfield:

    Bull. The existence of other possible delays does not justify United's actions here.

    "Is it impossible to rent a car and make it from Chicago to Louisville (300 miles) in time for his next-day appointments?"

    300 miles is a 5 hour drive. Could he theoretically make it? Yes, but he wouldn't be in any condition to work safely.

  20. Steve-O:

    He would have been home 2-3 hours later than he would have had he flown. Furthermore, the flight crew was on the plane so they didn't have to cancel other flights, which may have had numerous doctors.

    United screwed up (they could have also gotten their flight crew to Louisville by road), but that "doctor" is an unbalanced narcissist.

  21. markm:

    I've seen some attempts to defend United on the grounds that involuntarily bumping passengers is in the contract. But:

    1) When they cite the contract, it says the airline can deny boarding, not kick passengers off the airplane. Perhaps the airline is using some technical definition of "boarding" to claim that the passenger hadn't "boarded" until the plane was ready to leave the gate, but in the ordinary meaning of the word, he boarded when he walked aboard the plane. If that's not what the airline meant, there was no meeting of minds and that clause is void...

    2) especially since it's a contract of adhesion. The typical customer does not even see the contract when buying a ticket. If there's an ambiguity about the meaning of "board", the ariline put it there and it should be resolved in favor of the customer.

    3) The terms are unconscionable. There's a reason no one accepted United's offer of $800 - it wasn't money, but a voucher with a face value of $800. For most passengers, the actual value of a United voucher was from 0 to about 50%:

    -- It's non-transferable and expires in a year. It's 3 years since my last flight, and as my prostate glands continue growing I'm ever more reluctant to travel, so that voucher is worthless to me. And if I was going to fly, I'd only fly United if no other reasonably-priced airline is going to my destination - that's not based on this incident, but on bad experiences on each United flight I've been on in the last 20 years. Clerks that can't speak English. Business-class tickets for an overseas flight, but assigned to steerage seats. Flights delayed and canceled, leaving me with 8 hour layovers in an airport at a distant city...I can no longer remember if it was United or another airline for the "through" flight LA to Chicago that actually stopped in Denver to change planes - and my luggage didn't make the change.

    --If you are going to fly again on United within a year, it's still not worth $800. You can only use it by booking a full-price flight on United's web site, not by going through Travelocity and the other discount web sites that often get you 50% off.

    --They don't give change. You only get $800 on a full fare if you buy a full-fare ticket for $800 or more. That is, you might use that voucher plus $200 cash to get a $1,000 ticket - that would probably be $600 or less if you could shop around. That is, it saves you $400 at the most - unless you fly frequently on no notice and often have to pay full fare.

  22. blackbellamy:

    Yeah, way to diagnose someone Mr. Board Certified Psychiatrist. Maybe a quote from the DSM to fortify your expert diagnosis? Man paid for a ticket, was sitting down, told he had to get the fuck out, or else get beaten up by thugs. But to you he's an unbalanced narcissist because he's using whatever excuse to stay on the plane? Fuck you buddy, and your stupid opinion.

  23. Bill Setser:

    Nothing in my response should be construed as excusing United's behavior. We have a clear distinction illustrated here between right and legal. United had the legal right to remove him from the plane. How they did it was not right, and they are paying for it (and will pay for it for a long time).

    However, the excuse that this particular passenger couldn't be bumped because of the importance of his timely arrival at his destination does not hold up, when his arrival could have been delayed by many other factors. If it was critical that he arrive in Louisville before Monday, he should have allowed time for delays beyond anyone's control.

  24. Q46:

    Service recovery.

    Accept responsibility; apologise; make amends; move on.

    The cost saving in management time otherwise squandered, the goodwill bought is worth it.

    Why so many organisations, despite large amounts of money spent on and resources devoted to 'customer service' do not understand and practice this is difficult to explain.

  25. Q46:

    I expect he was taking the flight in order to avoid the drive... don't you?

  26. marco73:

    We have a weekly financial close in a $1+ billion business. Usually we will have 20 to 25 people from various departments assigned to cover their areas of responsibility during the close. Obviously these people are working on many other things, but will drop everything and check email when it comes in with any financial issue. They are mostly salary, and by 5pm are ready to leave for the weekend. For big money, we may need several hands and several departments involved. But if we are off by only a few dollars, all 20 or 25 people will still have to stay late while one or two people check some figures and find that a check for a nominal amount was put into the wrong bucket. Then, generally a decision will be made to just handle the incorrect transaction with some sort of journal entry on Monday. So everything is in balance and we can go home. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Ebenezer Scrooge could not come up with a sillier system.

  27. Don:

    Yes, but would you pay $100 to prevent $1 theft?

  28. jimc5499:

    We figure Engineering time at $150 per hour internally. We figure assembly time at $70 per hour. I keep trying to convince my Boss that spending two hours of Engineering time to save five minutes per unit is worth it when we are making 10,000 units.

  29. Don:

    Do the math for him, then hand him a fake check for the amount of the savings. Use that "people are weird when money's involved" thing I mentioned to your advantage.

  30. jimc5499:

    I'd agree with you except that United didn't remove him. Airport police removed him. All United did was ask that he be removed from the plane.

  31. Mike Powers:

    I'm sure his attitude is that there are millions of people who come to his campgrounds every year, so even if one or two or a hundred decide they aren't coming back then there are still a thousand more waiting to rent that site.

  32. Mike Powers:

    It's less strange when you consider that most people, when they think about "money spent doing my job", see "MY JOB" as more important than "MONEY SPENT".

    Your wife does things that cost $10 to save $2 because she'd have spent that $10 anyway. She didn't *not* do other things because she was chasing down that $2. As far as her employer is concerned, "standard labor hours and identified a $2 savings" is a net gain.

    If you consider "do not waste money" to be a business goal, then money spent pursuing that goal is not wasted money. Now, you can make the argument that it ought to be "do not waste money *consistently*" or "do not waste money *above a certain amount*" but it's very seldom framed that way.

  33. billposer:

    I hope that there is one exception to your positive response when the customer is at fault, namely that when a customer becomes violent or threatening, you ban the customer and report the matter to the police. There is a limit to what it is reasonable to ask your employees to put up with.