Think crisis prevention instead of crisis reaction to protect your small business

This is a post I’ve been meaning to write ever since security officers literally dragged a passenger off an United Airlines flight in April in order to accommodate one of its own crews. This was followed by a lengthy series of what I began to think of as “stupid airline mistake of the week” events in which employees of various airlines showed themselves to be shockingly poorly trained in customer service.

In the case of the United Airlines fiasco, the ham-handed first public response by the airline’s CEO, in which he labeled what happened as having to “re-accommodate” passengers, made things worse instead of better. People didn’t feel that “re-accommodate” was even close to the right description for what they saw in the video of the incident. Social media exploded with derision of the CEO’s statement, and rightfully so.

This poorly thought-out response kept the story in the news for days longer than it would have been if the CEO has immediately offered up an effective apology. As a result, a lot of ink was spent on the topic of crisis communications. Yes, it is indeed very important to know how to respond appropriately and effectively when something goes badly with a customer of your business. But what I wish to point out is that many types of crises can be anticipated, and proper planning you can avoid problems in the first place. In other words, an ounce of crisis prevention can go a long way.

Brainstorm the possibilities

In working with clients on crises communications, the first thing I always do is to gather a team from across the organization to brainstorm what possible crises could come their way that would affect customers and that might end up requiring a public response. It is important to include people from each area of the company in order to get a comprehensive list of the things that could go wrong and damage your company’s reputation. Make sure you include front-line employees who are actually dealing with customers each day.

I think of this as “gaming out” the possibilities. No one likes to think bad things will happen or that any of your employees will be stupid enough, careless enough, or even criminal enough to do something that will seriously damage the company’s reputation. But for this exercise, you have to take off the blinders and come up with all the possibilities. Conducting this exercise has grown even more important now that we’re in an era in which every incident can be recorded and easily spread via social media.

What I’ve sometimes witnessed when clients do this exercise is that someone will mention a possible crisis and the first reaction of others around the table will be, “Nah, that could never happen.” But dig deeper. I’m pretty sure the executives at United never thought they’d see a video of a passenger being dragged off one of their planes…but it happened and the whole world saw it.

The next step is to figure out if these possible problems could be avoided altogether through better planning and better procedures. Is this time consuming? Yes. Is it worth it? Doubly yes. Not only will you have an organization that has helped insure against crises, but you will also undoubtedly have an organization that operates with fewer hiccups in customer service and therefore an improved brand image.

How could this have helped United?

Let’s see how better crisis planning might have helped United Airlines. Overbooked flights happen daily, so it’s a big mystery that United was not prepared to act appropriately in an instance where not enough passengers volunteered to get off the flight to accommodate the United flight crew that needed seats. In follow-up stories, I read about several options that United – and all airlines – have for getting flight crews where they need to go without displacing customers. Among others, these include putting them on flights of other airlines, which charge them a discounted fare in such cases.

So options were available, but either through bad training or bad attitude, the employees failed to avail themselves of those options. Customer service seemed to be the last thing on their mind. But clearly this is a crisis that United could easily have gamed out in advance. They should have considered what could go wrong if they called in security officers to handle this situation. Employees should have been well trained about the other options available to them.

Crisis planning is not only a smart activity to undertake in terms of avoiding crises; it can also reveal ways in which you can make your existing customer service even better. Many of the solutions you come up with will have to do with better employee training. Certainly, the “stupid airline mistakes of the week” that created so many bad headlines this spring could have been avoided if the first concern of the employees in question has been providing great customer service.

Gaming out possible crises is something that you should do periodically because new possibilities arise all the time as your procedures change, you adopt new technology, or offer new products or services. I don’t mean to imply that you will ever be able to foresee and head-off every possible crisis. But you can identify a lot of them and weed them out as possibilities through better employee training and improved planning and management of operations.


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