Peter BilgelowAre you measuring customer service the right way?

April wasn’t a good month for United Airlines. Days after a video showing agents forcibly removing a screaming and bloodied doctor from an overbooked flight went viral, they bumped an engaged couple off an overbooked plane – on the way to their destination wedding.

Then came the flight where, allegedly, a scorpion was found roaming loose in the plane. Management, in PR triage, was certainly kept busy.

The airline business is a tough one. In many ways it is similar to the electronics industry. Much of the costs are “fixed”; significant and ongoing capital investment is required; capacity is constantly changing and rarely predictable, and competition is decreasing as relatively few large carriers vie for the majority of business globally. As tough as the airline business is, however, it appears United’s problems boil down to three simple root cause deficiencies. Those deficiencies cause problems not only for airlines, but for countless other businesses in a variety of industries, including, at times, ours.

First and most problematic is management too often is disconnected from the business and, more important, the customers. Yes, they talk the talk and know how to spin pithy phrases and creative slogans, but management, at least in United’s case, appears to have stopped flying in economy class or in any way mingling with the customers. This appears to have led to disconnect from the important aspects of serving customers and building positive brand loyalty.

Airlines are not the only businesses where this occurs. In industries from fast food to software to automobiles to electronics, management too often appears more interested in cutting costs than enhancing value. Like most airlines, United has created an environment in which passengers (aka customers) endure cramped and uncomfortable seats with minimal, if any food, little space to stow baggage, and more often than not must pay extra for conveniences traditionally considered part of the “value proposition” of the ticket purchase.

The same kind of disconnect takes place at fast food restaurants that are no longer fast and have menus often lacking real food. Software companies, excited about the latest and greatest features incorporated in release X.2, fail the most basic level of improving user experience by unnecessarily moving icons, changing simple keystrokes, and creating a negative value proposition of frustration and confusion every time customers must update their software. Same goes with overly complex user interfaces in automobiles, and for that matter electronics, where a multitude of options come at the price of simplicity of use and, at times, user safety.

Much of management’s disconnect can be attributed to the second deficiency, that being data-driven measurement of customer satisfaction. Yes, data measurements are important, but sometimes data cannot measure if someone is smiling or screaming. In the airline business one of the most common metrics of customer satisfaction is on-time performance. As everyone in our industry fully understands, delivering product on-time is essential. How you do so, however, is the difference between servicing the customer and irritating them.

Measuring customer satisfaction based primarily on the metric of on-time departure rather than the more important measurement of on-time arrival has created an environment that actually seems to have hurt customer service and satisfaction and is destroying brand loyalty. Airlines don’t welcome passengers (aka customers) on board, or assist them in stowing their gear and squeezing into their seats in a relaxed, customer-centric way. Rather, flight crews rush passengers, and when it’s the scheduled time to depart, are more concerned about making sure that metric is met rather than providing true service, let alone demonstrating morally appropriate behavior. In the case of overbooked flights, instead of taking the time to fully vet the passenger population (aka customers) for someone willing to take a later flight, as the time to depart approached, customer service was forgotten as customers were ejected. Whatever metric was used to rate customer satisfaction was undone by all those screams and viral videos from those who now plan to boycott the airline.

The final deficiency is that when there is little or no competition, it is easy to lose sight of the customer, or take them for granted. Management dumbs down the value of relationships and instead uses simple but not-all-that-important metrics to measure satisfaction, which in turn disconnects management further with the day-to-day feelings of what should be its most important focus: customers and their loyalty.

During April, United Airlines failed miserably to satisfy their customers and did anything but build positive brand loyalty. As I watched the series of events unfold in the media – traditional and social – it struck me that in our industry, where there are uncomfortably few suppliers of raw materials, and the largest companies account for the majority of industry sales, it could become too easy to forget what’s important while obsessing over data-driven trivialities. Customers are people, not just statistics, and they do count. Customers want, if not yearn for, service – good old-fashioned service. They want to know when they ask a question it will be answered. They want to communicate with a friendly, not harried, voice on the other end of an e-mail or phone. Even in our industry, surveys and data points can too easily trivialize what is important: customer satisfaction.

A lesson for us all from United is to focus on ensuring basic metrics don’t mislead management and employees from what is important: customers. Only the organization that cares about the people they sell to can build lasting brand loyalty and deliver a truly satisfying value proposition.

Peter Bigelow is president and CEO of IMI (; His column appears monthly.

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