United Airlines Debuts New Customer Service Policies—but Are They Enough?

To say that United Airlines has been in hot water recently is an understatement. First there was the incident with a passenger who was forcibly removed from a flight to make way for airline employees. Then there was a woman who was allegedly harassed by a drunk passenger while flight attendants on board did nothing to help her. And, to top things off, a giant rabbit died in the cargo compartment of a United plane earlier this week. Now, United Airlines has rolled out 10 new customer service policies in response to some of the recent incidents, but one customer service expert argues they're simply not enough. The new policies are:

1. United will limit use of law enforcement to safety and security issues only.

2. United will not require customers seated on the plane to give up their seat involuntarily unless safety or security is at risk.

3. United will increase customer compensation incentives for voluntary denied boarding up to $10,000.

4. United will establish a customer solutions team to provide agents with creative solutions.

Agents will be able to suggest nearby airports, offer more logical connections and arrange for ground transportation in case of travel mishaps.

5. United will ensure crews are booked onto a flight at least 60 minutes prior to departure.

6. United will provide employees with additional annual training.

7. United will create an automated system for soliciting volunteers to change travel plans.

This won’t be available until later this year, but United aims to roll out an automated check-in process through their app and in the airport to facilitate self-service.

8. United will reduce the amount of overbooking.

9. United will empower employees to resolve customer service issues in the moment.

Agents will have access to an app that will empower them to better assist customers in case someone does have to be bumped off a flight due to overbooking. Agents will now have the authority to reward passengers that volunteer to get off the flight with miles, credits, and other perks.

10. United will eliminate the red tape on permanently lost bags.

United will now pay passengers $1,500 for lost bags—no questions asked.

Though the new policies demonstrate an awareness of some of the key issues United has faced, Chip Bell, customer experience expert and author, says the company is not doing enough to build a feedback loop between itself and customers.

"Where is the connection with customers that will serve as an ongoing pipeline to alert United of changing customer expectations?  Where is the hotline for help, ideas, and feedback? Where are the focus groups with passengers who were on the ill-fated flight as a resource for learning?" Bell asks.  

Backlash after United's incident in Chicago, where a passenger was dragged off the plane, was so immense because it wasn't the first incident. Not only was it a particularly bad situation, but it was also the straw that broke the camel's back. "It was United's illustrative long history with service hiccups," Bell says, alluding to the "United Breaks Guitars" YouTube video that went viral, which portrayed United's careless treatment of property. Last year Businessweek ran a cover story titled "United’s Quest to be Less Awful" and just this past January, United experienced a massive computer glitch that grounded all domestic flights.

"Incidents like these leave a trust void in the minds of United customers, making them far less forgiving. Damage control via new policies signals an allegiance to policies, not a reliance on a strong customer-centric culture," Bell says. To make a real difference, United has to fundamentally change their approach to customer service—not just implement some new policies.   

"Trust building comes through actions and attitudes, not through policies and procedures. Just ask JetBlue," Bell says. "Actions and attitudes must visibly reveal a customer-first orientation in actual practice, not just written procedures," he adds.

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