Complaint Department

Absolutely terrific article by Jean-Louis Gassèe on the underlaying corporate culture that lead to the behaviors we’ve recently seen from United. This quote in particular really caught my eye:

When a customer brings a complaint, there are two tokens on the table: It’s Nothing and It’s Awful. Both tokens are always played, so whoever chooses first forces the other to grab the token that’s left. For example: Customer claims something’s wrong. I try to play down the damage: It’s Probably Nothing…are you sure you know what you’re doing? Customer, enraged at my lack of judgment and empathy, ups the ante: How are you boors still in business??
But if I take the other token first and commiserate with Customer’s complaint: This Is Awful! How could we have done something like this? Dear Customer is left with no choice, compelled to say Oh, it isn’t so bad…certainly not the end of the world..

It’s such an incredible insight. It hits right at the base of the idea that people simply just want to be heard. It also gets right at the root of what felt so off about United’s entire reaction to the emerging crisis.

From the very beginning, if the United staff had approached the passengers by admitting culpability, I’d imagine their reactions would have been drastically different. If you approach a person honestly, and admit that logistically these staff members need to be on this flight in order to successfully get another set of planes and their passengers to their destinations, it suddenly makes sense. Then the fact that United was offering to pay passengers to stay on the ground seems far more reasonable. 

Additionally, the concern of Dr. Dao’s that he had patients to see the next day could be put in the context that entire planes would be unable to complete their routes unless these seats could be used for staff members. Suddenly the utilitarian argument of the greatest good for the greatest number is flipped around where one doctor arriving at his destination late is better than planes full of people and their obligations being grounded.

When you leave all that reasoning behind, and simply state that contractually you have the right to refuse service to any person for any reason, the customer has no reason to view the action as anything other than a selfish move which devalues the individual and emphasizes profits.

On the plus end, this whole situation may lead to the end of the practice of overbooking flights. There is simply no way I can justify this philosophy that it is ok for a company to sell more tickets than they physically have seats to offer.