By Michelle van Schouwen
United Airlines is having a really bad time. It may have thousands of well-intentioned, hardworking and dedicated employees. But its policies of overbooking and right-to-remove passengers, plus the actions of a few decision makers and some thug-like behavior by airport security officials resulted in dragging a paying customer off a flight, bloodying the customer and United’s already iffy reputation for customer service. The passenger, a doctor, had refused to exit the flight, citing the need to return home to see his patients.
United CEO Oscar Munuz compounded the public’s fury by apologizing “for having to re-accommodate these customers” and then, in an email to employees, calling the passenger “disruptive and belligerent” and commending his staff for going “above and beyond.” The word “re-accommodate” was a particularly egregious bit of insensitivity, if social media response is any measure.
Meanwhile, video of the doctor being dragged forcibly from the plane while other passengers protested loudly went viral globally, as did every word United officials have uttered or written about the incident. United stock fell sharply at one point during the day following the incident. Predictably, the damage to United Airlines’ reputation will be harder to recover than the lost dollars.
United is far from alone.
A prepackaged salad company recently sold more than expected when customers discovered a decomposing bat in the salad greens.
Fox News has lost more than half of its advertising sponsorships for its Bill O’Reilly show in one week because of sexual harassment complaints against host Bill O’Reilly.
The lessons small business owners can take from such happening are priceless:
-Train your staff to behave in a manner that will not incite customer fury. That’s the low bar, of course. Train your staff to respect and, whenever possible, please customers. Some would say “delight customers.”
-Establish employment policies to assure employee and public safety; to help avoid employee complaints about discrimination, sexual harassment and more; and to assure product quality.
-Also establish training and procedures to avoid inadvertent errors, failures and accidents that can destroy your reputation – health aides making medication errors, failing to meet deadlines on an important assignment, and more.
-In the instance that something bad does happen, immediately get on the job of crisis management.
-Depending on the severity of the situation, you may need to immediately consult with an attorney, your public relations experts… and your conscience.
-Determine where the news has spread. Ideally, in reputation management, your response puts out fires rather than creating new ones. In other words, if an entire group is not likely to hear of an incident, you should carefully think before sharing the news with them.
-Be more considerate than defensive, within the bounds of what your attorney advises. In other words, expressing an apology is valuable. People are more likely to forgive you if you are genuinely contrite about any harm you’ve done. If your legal counsel says you risk creating liability, you will have to work together to achieve a satisfactory solution.
-The buck stops with you. Even if an employee is totally, despicably responsible for whatever happened, you are the boss and everyone is looking to you for a response. Sorry.
-Reputations are difficult to mend, but it can be done. We’ve worked with companies that have struggled through everything from major product recalls to painful bankruptcies to mass layoffs, and many have recovered their good reputations in time.
-Finally, don’t be a jerk. A jerk in business is as readily disliked as a jerk anywhere else. Decency can prevail.
The lessons big corporations have learned – or should have learned – can benefit you. While your sphere of influence may be smaller, it’s no less important in terms of the success or failure of your enterprise.
Michelle van Schouwen is president of van Schouwen Associates, LLC (vSA), a B2B marketing company based in Longmeadow, MA. vSA is known for vSALaunch, its proprietary, modular and scalable system for B2B marketing launches, vSAConsult, its executive-level strategic planning capability, and for its expertise in integrated marketing for B2B. Among the company’s public relations services are reputation management and crisis management.