Home World Technology What businesses can learn about process design from the United Airlines incident

What businesses can learn about process design from the United Airlines incident

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Image: iStock/fizkes

Imagine for a moment an operational problem occurs somewhere in your organization. Your systems and workflows rapidly identify the issue and relay it to the appropriate line manager. She has exactly the data she needs to identify the solution, which involves rerouting some resources to the source of the problem.

Once again your IT and workflow systems kick in, resources are dynamically rerouted, and your supply chain line employees are faced with a decision to expedite the priority resources. Thankfully, they have hours of training and hundreds of pages of well-documented processes to rely on. They perfectly follow the procedures, escalating an incident exactly as they were instructed. Ultimately the rerouted resources arrive exactly where needed, the operational crisis is averted, and the entire situation was a textbook example of flawlessly executed technology and process.

More for CXOs

The case above recently occurred, and unless you’ve lived in a cave, you’ve likely seen the result: a beaten and bloodied passenger literally being dragged out of a United Airlines airplane. The media attention has been nonstop, but it has only superficially highlighted the fact that everything went according to plan from a process perspective. United identified an operational problem and located a replacement crew to fix it. The gate agents followed their documented procedures, and when a challenge arose they escalated according to their procedures, calling the police, which ultimately resulted in a global PR nightmare.

Process and technology aren’t the whole equation

For decades, many of us in IT have been striving for perfect processes and technology, backed by training and “job aids” that relieve line employees from having to think or improvise. While attempting to make a job easier is a noble pursuit, striving purely for process excellence can produce poor customer experiences that can have an extremely adverse effect on the company as a whole. In the United example, flight attendants and operations personnel attempted to displace a small number of passengers for the “greater good” of a future flight. When one customer refused reaccommodation, the gate agent invoked a law enforcement response. Having likely been trained in efficiency, safety, and security as the primary benchmarks of success, this might have been a reasonable response in the context of his or her training. However, as the events of the past few weeks have dictated, that response will ultimately cost United significantly.

SEE: Oracle brings ‘Adaptive Intelligence’ to Customer Experience applications (ZDNet)

“Customer experience” may sound like something best left to marketing, or a bunch of “touchy feely” nonsense; however, our processes and systems increasingly impact our customers, whether they’re consumers, businesses, or an internal entity. Focusing ruthlessly on how quickly you can execute a transaction can damage that relationship, especially when you add in a highly rules-based environment and limited tools for handling unusual situations. With the benefit of hindsight, United would probably have happily written a million-dollar check for that one seat, or invested far more time and money into training around customer service that emphasized de-escalation of customer disputes, rather than invoking a law enforcement system that’s obviously poorly equipped to handle what was largely a customer service issue.

Contrast what occurred at United to a company on the extreme opposite of the customer experience spectrum, Ritz Carlton hotels, whose company motto is “We are Ladies and Gentlemen serving Ladies and Gentlemen.” Not only does this simple sentence encapsulate the hotel chain’s emphasis on treating employees and customers a certain way, but systems and procedures are purposely open-ended to allow employees to respond to customer service incidents where they occur. Line employees are empowered to resolve situations, even if that means providing funds directly to a guest, without hundred-page procedural manuals or a focus primarily on operational efficiency.

Building experience into your systems and processes

As you design your systems and processes, highlight areas where they directly impact customers, again keeping in mind that those customers could be a business or consumer, or an internal entity. At that point of customer impact, keep the following in mind:

  • Consider where you can make the experience better. Rather than focusing solely on the process, spend time considering the experience.
  • If something goes wrong, identify how you can empower those closest to the problem to resolve it, even if it means abandoning the policy manual.
  • Whether you have the right employees in place to make the experience exceptional or resolve problems that occur. You might not need to go as far as hiring “Ladies and Gentlemen to serve Ladies and Gentlemen,” but customer experience considerations should play a role in your staffing decisions whether or not the role will interact directly with customers. This may seem counterintuitive, but it’s difficult for a programmer without any knowledge of customer experience to create tools that take these considerations into account.
  • Include metrics that measure customer service, beyond execution time and simple surveys that usually track only the best and worst experiences. These could be tools like NPI (Net Promoter Score) or my personal favorite, a one-question survey that Delta Airlines once used in their call centers, asking people “If it were your business, would you hire the person you just spoke with?”

SEE: ANZ bank to adopt Google-like ‘Agile’ approach to customer experience (ZDNet)

Much of the attention paid to the United incident is because we’ve all experienced air travel, and the associated stress and low-quality experience, where it seems like we’re treated as animals herded into a railcar rather than paying customers. Intriguingly, one can’t help marvel at the tens of thousands of processes and systems that must be successfully executed to get an aircraft from one location to another with a high degree of safety. While airlines should be lauded for this process excellence, it seems they’ve forgotten about the customer side of the equation, as one incident has undone all manner of expensive operational and systems investments. Take heed of this lesson and recognize that even the best processes and systems won’t make your company successful if you ultimately brutalize even a single customer.

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