5 Lessons Your Small Business Can Learn From United’s Big Mess-up

Everyone messes-up some time. It’s not a question of if your business is going to mess-up, it’s only a question of when and then how you’re going to respond.

Note: If you’re reading this post later (or somehow missed this story), this is the week that a 69 year-old doctor (of Chinese descent) was forcibly taken off a plane by security guards in Chicago, literally dragged down the aisle with blood on his face. The incident went viral leading to a non-apology, an internal memo that discredited the “apology” and finally a “real apology.”

In a week where big stories should dominate the news (like Russia-US relations sour after Syria bombing, North Korea threatens US nuclear strike, etc.), this United story was everywhere. The video of the doctor being dragged down the aisle was shown and re-shown on every network and cable news station over and over again.

And that doesn’t count social media where this story was ubiquitous. In fact, in China alone (hence my reference to the fact the doctor was Chinese), within a few hours, over 120 million users of the Chinese social web app, Weibo, had viewed posts with the hashtag #UnitedForcesPassengerOffPlane. Think about that. 120 million within hours.

Any way you add it up, it was a PR nightmare leading to people stating that they won’t fly United anymore.

So, what can you and I learn from United’s mess-up? Well, here are five lessons that all of us, as small business owners and entrepreneurs, can learn from one big company’s mistakes.

I. Make Sure You Have the Right Systems In Place Before Something Goes Wrong

United should have had a great plan in place for how to deal with this situation because it’s not hard to anticipate that something like this could happen.

Unfortunately, most people who fly don’t realize that when they purchase a ticket, there’s no guarantee that you get to keep that seat. It’s in the small print that most people don’t read. Since most people don’t read the small print, it shouldn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that discovering that you don’t have a right to your seat, when you’re already sitting in a seat on an airplane, could be a shocker.

Moreover, it shouldn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that there are small set of predictable reactions to this news—one of which is “No.” Everyone who’s ever been a parent should have seen this coming. The idea that everyone who learns this news, while sitting in a seat on an airplane, would be compliant is ridiculous. Every part of what happened on that plane, should have been anticipated and planned for.

So, looking at your business, have you and your team played out all of the possible actions and reactions your customers might have as they interact with you and your business? If something goes wrong, what’s your system for handling that? And then have you played out, how your customers and the public might respond to your response/action?

Remember, the best time to fix a problem is before that problem actually occurs. United’s mess-up should hopefully remind you to “war game” out possible scenarios and responses so that you have the right systems in place before anything goes wrong.

II. Make Sure Your People Follow Your Systems Perfectly Every Time

It’s one thing to have a system in place. It’s another to ensure it’s followed correctly. In the case of United, part of their system was not for their people to respond to someone who wouldn’t leave a plane but for them to contact the Chicago Authority’s security team to do so—which they did.

However, I’m trusting that neither organization has a system in place that calls for dragging a passenger out of a plane by their extended arms (let alone for a 69 year old). But that’s exactly what happened.

The reason so many organizations train, re-train and role-play is because “knowing something” and doing it are two completely different things. Just because something is in a manual, doesn’t mean it’s actually being done by those who are supposed to be doing that thing. And some of the worst offenders are professionals and executives who think they know better (i.e. it’s not just front line staff who mess-up).

This is why the best sales team members still do role-plays in their sales training meetings. This is why high performance organizations place controls throughout their organization to ensure compliance. And this is why you should be making sure you both train your people to follow your systems and put controls in place to ensure compliance. Why? Because it only takes one mess-up to go viral and you’re losing customers, prospects and market share.

So what are you doing to ensure your people are actually following your systems perfectly every time?

III. Build Flexibility Into Your Systems

Having a system doesn’t mean you only have one response for everyone, it means you’ve thought through the range of options and then you empower the people who have to execute the system to choose the right option.

In the case of United, there were lots of possible options they could have chosen. The system United uses for choosing who to “kick off” could have been changed. A 69-year old doctor who wanted to get back to Louisville so he could see his patients the next day is in a different category than someone heading home after vacation.

Note: I didn’t know United’s system for selection because different airlines use different systems. Southwest does last on, first off. Others use cheapest ticket prices or those who have direct flights over connections, etc. But there are people who have a greater reason to not be bumped than others. For example, those of us who are professional speakers. If we don’t show up on time, hundreds or thousands of people will be left waiting, an organizer will be in big trouble and we lose real income. In other words, there are factors beyond ticket prices that should be factored in (i.e. the airplane companies are only thinking about metrics that matter to them (like ticket prices and the inconvenience of rebooking multiple flights) than what matters to the individual customer). Shocker!

But, more importantly, why get to that point? Incentives work. They could have easily empowered their attendants to up the incentive to make it interesting enough for four people to say, “I’ll wait for the next flight.” Being cheap is bad business. If they had offered more, they could have easily found four people to take an offer for a free round trip ticket and some cash—and, by doing so, they could have avoided this PR nightmare completely.

They also could have offered alternative transportation if a later flight wasn’t available. For example, I bet an Uber driver would have gladly driven the doctor to Louisville (which is approximately four and a half hours away from Chicago).

Bottom line, United should have built in more flexibility into their system. Once the team realized that the person who drew the bad card was a doctor who needed to see patients the next day, that should have changed the equation. However, the better system would have been to give some flexibility in the choice of incentives. No one likes being bumped off a flight. Why make it worse? Compensate them in such a way that they’ll love the airline more, not hate it more (i.e. “Hey, I got a free first class ticket” is so much better than “I got dragged off a flight by my arms with blood streaming down my face.”).

So, looking at your systems, how much flexibility do you need to build in so your people on the front line are empowered to make better choices?

IV. Apologize Fast … And Mean It

Years ago, I wrote a post that Leroy Gibbs (from NCIS) is wrong. Gibbs hates apologies. I disagree. There’s nothing wrong with apologizing and it’s not an admission of guilt. Apologizing is about restoring relationships, not about rightness and wrongness.

I apologize all the time. Why? Because relationships matter. If someone feels wronged (whether it’s legitimate or not), you want to connect to the emotion so the relationship can move forward. Note: there is a big difference between saying, “I’m sorry. I was wrong.” And “I’m sorry that what I said made you feel so angry.”

In the case of the CEO of United, he blew it. Here’s what he said in his first “apology.”

“This situation was unfortunately compounded when one of the passengers we politely asked to deplane refused and it became necessary to contact the Chicago Aviation Security Officers to help. Treating our customers and each other with respect and dignity is at the core of who we are and we must always remember this no matter how challenging the situation.”

Does that sound like an apology? Not even close.

Finally, after taking a beating in the media (and markets), the CEO, Munoz, came out with a real apology (just a little too late).

The truly horrific event that occurred on this flight has elicited many responses from all of us: outrage, anger, disappointment. I share all of those sentiments, and one above all: my deepest apologies for what happened. Like you, I continue to be disturbed by what happened on this flight and I deeply apologize to the customer forcibly removed and to all the customers aboard. No one should ever be mistreated this way. I want you to know that we take full responsibility and we will work to make it right.

If he had only said the above immediately, the story would have been completely different.

So, in your case, when something goes wrong, what’s your natural inclination? Do you double down on “rightness”? Or do you apologize fast (and mean it)?

V. Remember, Andy Grove Was Right … Only the Paranoid Survive

If you’re not familiar with Andy Grove, he’s the guy who led Intel to become the world’s largest chip maker and who penned a book back in 1999 entitled, “Only the Paranoid Survive.”

I love that phrase, and you should too, especially in the social media world that we now exist in. All it takes is one bad video, one bad email, one bad text, and you can have a PR nightmare on your hands that can either significantly decrease your revenue this year or totally kill your small business. Hence why it pays to be a little paranoid.

Of course, the problem for most entrepreneurs is that we, as a group, tend to be pretty optimistic. We want to believe the best (I mean, who else would ever want to start a business when the odds of success are so low and the probability of making less money than you were or could have is so high). In addition, we often tend to be big picture people who don’t want to be “burdened” with systems and minutia.

However, it’s usually the little things that hurt/kill us. Which is why it pays to develop a little paranoia. Not enough so that you think there’s a bogeyman behind every bush, but enough so that you’re constantly thinking about and preparing for the worst (as well as the best).

United’s CEO should have been a little more paranoid about what a negative passenger story could do to his airline. It’s not like this hasn’t happened before. And, as I mentioned above, it’s not like it couldn’t have been anticipated.

In addition, with news leaks on Capital Hill every week, Munoz, should have been paranoid enough to anticipate that his “internal memo” defending his attendants would be leaked by someone in the organization and become an “external memo.”

So, don’t be like him. Be a little paranoid. Don’t assume everything will just work out. Do assume things will leak. Risk mitigation is still part of your job. And, in a social media world, I would suggest that every small business owner in America needs to be a little paranoid. All you need to do is look at how much destruction one little video did on a Fortune 100 company within a few hours.

Well, there you go. Five small business lessons from United’s mess-up that can help you protect your business from a PR nightmare.

  1. Make sure you have the right systems in place before something goes wrong
  2. Make sure your people follow your systems perfectly every time
  3. Build flexibility into your systems
  4. Apologize Fast … And Mean It
  5. Remember, Andy Grove Was Right … Only the Paranoid Survive

In light of those five lessons, what are you going to do this week to ensure your business is better prepared in case something goes wrong … before it ever happens?

To your accelerated success! 

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