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Does customer service really matter?

12th Apr 2017
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News this week that United Airlines forcibly removed a passenger from one of their flights, and that Southern Railway’s CEO took home almost £500,000 despite a year of strikes and delays, made me seriously question whether some organisations really care about the customer experience they offer.

I know there’s a school of thought that suggests you shouldn’t focus on delighting your customers, but United and Southern have clearly taken the concept way too far.

United Airlines – already famous for breaking guitars – again hit the headlines this week when it used force to remove one of its paying customers from Flight 3411 from Chicago to Louisville. They had overbooked the flight and needed to make room for their own employees to travel. The passenger in question - a 69-year-old doctor - was filmed being dragged off the plane by security guards, and the footage has already had millions of online views, with comments such as ‘United Airlines is the worst airline ever’, ‘United Airlines just did something horrible to a passenger’, and ‘United Airlines took it to the next level of suck’.

United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz then didn’t help by issuing a bland, passive/aggressive corporate apology saying: “I apologise for having to re-accommodate these customers”, before apparently describing the passenger as “disruptive and belligerent” in a leaked internal statement.

Perhaps what angers people most in situations like this is that there’s such an obvious disconnect between the brand image that major organisations such as United seek to promote and the actual operational reality. United is known for its ‘Fly the Friendly Skies’ slogan and positions itself as ‘being the airline that customers want to fly’. Unfortunately, a quick Google search for ‘I’ll never fly with United again’ shows that there are plenty of passengers who feel very differently.

It’s not just the disconnect between promise and delivery that passengers find so frustrating - in United’s case it’s also the clumsy way they seem to address customer service issues.

Obviously United Airlines isn’t alone. Here in the UK this week Southern Rail has again been criticised for excessive executive payments while delivering a consistently poor level of service. Again, it’s the disconnect between the reward and the service delivered that angers customers. Southern Rail’s parent company Govia stresses that ‘good customer service is at the heart of everything we do’, however it’s only a few weeks since Southern was voted Britain’s worst train company in the National Rail Passenger Survey.

Unfortunately for organisations like United Airlines and Southern Rail, customers now have an increasingly broad range of social media channels where they can share their frustrations and disbelief. There are already calls on Twitter for passengers to boycott United, while almost 10,000 people already follow @BadSouthernRail on Twitter.  

Both businesses clearly still have a lot of bridge building to do, however I have a worrying suspicion that they probably won’t end up doing too much. United Airlines will remain focused on managing its critical ‘revenue per available seat mile’ metric, while Southern will muddle on with its current rail franchise that still has another four years to run. 

Given this, you really do have to ask whether these organisations actually do place any value on delivering a high-quality customer experience – or is it just that it’s easier to keep on saying the words? Please tell me I’m wrong!

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