Friday, July 10, 2009

United We Stand... Or Fall

It used to be that a company's worst PR nightmare was a parent dishing at a little league game or to be prominently featured on the 6 o'clock news in a negative light. Not anymore. Now a company's worst customer service nightmare is to reap what they sow in terms of suffering at the hands of someone who truly understands how to use social media to make a point.

Hint: musicians love their instruments and rely on them to make a living. Do NOT - repeat, DO NOT - mistreat a professional musician's instrument.

It doesn't matter if it's David Carroll or the previously-better-known Louden Wainwright III.

In the matter of just a couple of days, hundreds of thousands of people have watched, commented on, and retweeted Carroll's music video, United Breaks Guitars (last check, one version showed more than 1.5M views). Tough spot for United to be in at this point, but they're doing the best they can, having completely botched all earlier opportunities to handle the matter differently or avoid the trouble altogether. Sure, the fine print reads that luggage might get damaged along the way, but presumably not through gross negligence.

Lest anyone feel inclined to blame any one individual (such as the poor Ms. Irlweg named in the song), note that more than one baggage handler was involved and Carroll dealt with multiple United employees. This was a systemic failure, all the way from the lack of caring on the part of various employees to the policies that hand-cuffed those who may have wished to handle the matter otherwise.

And it's not just Carroll who has experienced such horrible customer service at the hands of an airline. You don't rack up a million views of a video just because it's clever and well-done (though that certainly helps) - this song strikes a chord with people because they've all had similar experiences. When something resonates this strongly, social media just acts like an amplifier.

Not surprisingly, Carroll doesn't want compensation at this late date. That opportunity is long gone. If United really does use the video for training, it could go a long ways toward improving future customer experience, but no matter what, they have a long haul ahead of them to get out of the hole they've dug for themselves.

If the best way to handle such situations is to avoid them in the first place, let's take a look at what it takes to deliver stellar customer service.

First, the front-line employees themselves have to care. They are the ones who are handling bags, food, repairs, whatever it is that you're selling to or doing for customers. Front-line employees are also the customer service agents, wait staff, front desk people, flight attendants, etc who are interacting directly with customers. If they don't care about customers or their role in keeping customers satisfied, nothing else matters.

So what makes employees care or not care? Each business is a bit different but making them feel treated fairly, including fair compensation, comes to mind. If the business exhibits no loyalty or caring for their employees, it is rare they will show any loyalty toward the business or caring for their customers.

It doesn't mean that you have to throw money at the employees, but in an era when there still exists a larger-than-before pay gap between executives and line employees, and businesses like airlines regularly demand (and get) concessions from employees only to renege on promises later or fail to share the wealth when more profitable times come along, it's wise to think about the impact that has on employee morale. Argue all you want about who creates the most value for the company but just remember that the effectiveness of your customer service initiative is only as strong as your weakest link.

And there are other ways besides financial rewards to motivate employees. Give the middle managers (and their managers) the training needed to find out what is meaningful to each of their employees and the power to act on that information.

Fostering a culture of caring about customers and using that sentiment to guide everyday decisions and actions is another key. This culture of customer service has to spread throughout the organization and not be limited to front-line customer service agents reading from some script. So often we talk about empowering employees to do what's right without really delving into what that's supposed to mean and ensuring it looks, acts and sounds like the ideal of ensuring happy customers satisfied with your product or service.

When it comes right down to it, whatever the excuses are for not doing the things that result in happy customers, it just means you (as a business first, as an employee second) don't care about the customer enough to find a cost-effective way to deliver what they want. Where you might have survived a little league game or a negatively-slanted news story in the past, your chances of surviving a social media body blow today are a lot slimmer.

Now is the time to fully re-commit to your customers on a company-wide basis, starting with re-committing to your employees, fostering a culture centered around satisfying customers, and providing the training needed to make satisfied customers a reality. If you don't, you're just a social media-savvy clever songwriter away from ultimate disaster.

How have you helped foster a culture of service in your organization?