It began when they needed volunteers to give up seats so crew members could reach their next work destination. When travel vouchers were not enough incentive for volunteers, they used their alchemic solution to decide which customer would get the boot. This led to one Dr. David Dao being dragged from his seat, down the aisle and off the plane against his will. Not only had Dr. Dao already paid for the seat, he was already sitting in it. Whatever happened to possession being nine-tenths of the law?
Most of us have seen video from the encounter, captured with smartphone cameras and shared widely on social media. While United does not condone the treatment that Dr. Dao received—in fact, the event has sparked an investigation into overbooking flights at multiple airlines—the event is symptomatic of a service culture based entirely on rules and decision trees.
Being bumped from an overbooked flight is a standard practice, as is the practice of overbooking flights altogether (at least for now). As someone who travels frequently for business and leisure, I have often wondered when it will be my turn to get bumped. Still, the whole event demonstrates the need for a clearer divide between Front-of-House customer experience and Back-of-House policy from all airlines. When Back-of-House policy decisions poke through to the Front-of-House, embarrassing problems happen, trust is compromised and customers are lost.
Rules and decision trees are, unfortunately, very important when lives are at stake. After all, we do pay the airlines to get us there safe and sound. However, when dealing with human beings who have emotions and basic human rights, you need to apply the type of judgment that cannot be delivered through an employee handbook. Instead, providers in these heavily regulated industries need to learn how to coordinate intended outcomes with more humane, reasonable customer experiences.
The limits to rules and decision trees only become more apparent as algorithms increasingly execute on the dirty work. If machine learning algorithms automate the decision-making process with limited human interference or oversight, who is to blame when a poorly considered branch on a decision tree turns into a viral video that deeply damages brand trust? While many have cited Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics when determining the ethics of machine capabilities, there is still clearly a need to define the ethics of people training and working with these machines.
Events that sacrifice quality experiences to adhere to rigid policy erode trust in the Basic Law of Commerce: Pay a fair price for a product or service to get said product or service in return. This foundation goes as far back as early humankind trading a good stick for a good rock. Back then, there was no fine print in that transaction saying someone could decide to keep your stick, but also take your rock away with the promise of giving you a voucher for another rock tomorrow.
According to a recent Dimension Data report, 81 percent of businesses cite customer service as a competitive differentiator. Of companies that say they put these experiences first, 92 percent report an increase in customer loyalty. In heavily regulated industries like air travel, Back-of-House policy will always be a factor impacting customer service decisions—but it cannot be an excuse to not deliver on them. Focusing on real customer pain points even provides the right context for innovation. For example, if the business proposition is in transporting passengers, then airlines may need to rethink not only current seating procedures, but how planes are designed, how planes are staged, how much plane space is allocated to crew during flight and how organizations could improve collaboration across siloed departments to deliver on improved customer experiences.
Airlines will do little to improve brand trust or loyalty if they keep thinking of their customers as seat numbers and not real people with real needs. This all comes back to the significance of human-centered design. It is not enough to define policy standards if they deeply compromise customer experience—and even human dignity.