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The ‘C Word’ That Explains United’s Debacle

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There is a “C word” that describes and explains exactly what’s wrong with United—and not just in their most recent incident.

Jay: Hey, everybody. It’s been quite a stretch for our friends at United. People have been asking me what I think about it, since I wrote a whole book about customer service. Obviously appalled and chagrined, but here’s my take on it.
There is a “C word” that describes and explains exactly what’s wrong with United—not just in this incident, but in a whole string of incidents going back two, three years. It’s not CEO. In fact, they’ve changed their CEO. This is the new guy.
It’s culture. The issue is United has a culture that lacks the most important, in fact required, ingredient to be good at customer service and customer experience. They have a corporate culture that lacks trust.
They do not trust their employees to make decisions that are common-sensical.
They do not trust their customers, which is why they require them to do very specific things in very specific circumstances.
Companies that do not have a strong culture of trust, either of trust in employees or of trust in customers, or in this case both, fall into a very particular trap. And that’s why on this Jay Today, I wanna explain to you what that trap is. It’s the trap of the policy. See, when you have a corporate culture that has insufficient trust, what you do to make up for that lack of trust is you put in lots and lots and lots of rules and guidelines, so that people cannot stray from those rules and guidelines. They’re not allowed to use common sense. They’re not allowed to do things in the moment that might make a customer happy. They’re not allowed to use their creativity, their empathy, their humanity to address problems on the fly.
And you can tell that United is a culture that is rooted in policy by way the way their CEO addressed this issue in his long and somewhat disturbing email to employees. And so I thought it might be useful for United, and maybe for us all, if I defined what policy really stands for, and I’ve done that here for you today. Policy stands for possibly outrageous legalese intended to cover your ass.
And some people might say, “Well, geez, Jay. Look, the airline business is really complicated. There’s lots of points of failure. There’s lots of customers that kind of stray and do crazy things.” Look, brother, I know it. I fly 170 times a year. I have seen passengers do some crazy stuff on a plane. Maybe I should do an episode of Jay Today about that sometime.
But look, the airline business does not require a culture that lacks trust. You know how I know that? Think about Southwest Airlines. They are in the exact same business, right? The exact same business, the exact same industry, yet their culture manifests itself totally differently. Every single flight attendant is empowered to handle the announcements in their own special, unique, crazy way, right? I’ve seen Southwest personnel do amazing things in the moment, in the field that clearly were not part of any sort of manual, training program, or policy. And you know why they’re allowed to do that? Because their culture has trust. Without trust, all we have are a bunch of rules. And sometimes circumstances dictate that you do not apply by the rules.
Common sense dictates that you do not drag passengers through the aisles, but yet the policy says that that’s exactly what you should do. So, United, your problems are not PR. Your problems are not airport personnel. Your problems are at the molecular DNA level. Your problems are cultural. And the only way that gets fixed is both from the bottom up and from the top down.
Frankly, I don’t have a lot of hope or expectations that that’s gonna get fixed.
Thanks as always to my friends at Emma for sponsoring the Jay Today program. Hope you enjoyed this episode. I’m live today from Salt Lake City at a conference for my friends at Workfront. I’m at the Grand American Hotel here in Salt Lake City. Great property and a very cool downtown. It’s been a fun time. Thank as always to Emma, as mentioned. If you want more from your email marketing, if you wanna send your apology letters with the best possible email platform, you should do it with Emma. Go to From Salt Lake City, I’m Jay. This is Jay Today. I’ll see you again in a couple days, thanks.

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