United's recent fails cannot be fixed by social media

United's recent fails cannot be fixed by social media

Summary: Social media was hailed as the big push back by consumers that would force brands to pay attention. United shows us that's all wrong when there are broken processes and a jobsworth culture.


Anyone remember the excitement around social media as a customer service enabler? Anyone remember social media 'experts' 'gurus' and other assorted marketing hangers on telling us that a revolution is coming in customer experience where the brands would no longer hold sway but that it would be the customer who dictates how customer service gets delivered? 

The theory goes something like this - if enough people piss on poor customer service, name and shame and otherwise ridicule the brand then surely the brand owner would respond positively and mend its wicked ways. I remember thinking - what a load of BS. And said so an many an occasion, much to the patronising digital pats on the head I got from those who could only sigh and tell me how out of touch I am.

Of one thing I am sure, the tech industry is stuffed full of those only too willing to pimp the latest craze as the shiny new toy that will fix our businesses. The cycle moves on and as usual, very little of real benefit occurs. It just so happens that the social media thing didn't require a great deal of brain power to get folk whipped up into a frenzy of unthinking excitement.  

United/Continental has well and truly buried the social media customer service influence myth. The latest United faux pas was truly horrific. Long story short, they effectively lost an unaccompanied minor causing extreme anxiety to the parents. Having flown unaccompanied minors I know that it is stressful at the best of times. To have a child left stranded with no real help must be gut wrenching.

To make matters worse, United's arcane business processes combined with a jobsworth mentality among some staff meant that the parents spent hours on the phone frantically trying to resolve the problem. They are United lifers. If anyone should get great service it is these people. But no. The case amply demonstrated a litany of problems that are all tied up with service processes. 

Prof Bob Sutton - he of the No Asshole Rule - wrote an impassioned piece on the topic that was tweeted on and off pretty much all day Tuesday. It was only when ABC News got in touch that United deigned a response. The response was far from adequate in the eyes of many:

A United spokesperson told ABC News, "We reached out directly to the Klebahns to apologize and we are reviewing their concerns. What the Klebahns describe is not the service we aim to deliver to our customers.

"We are redepositing the miles used to purchase the ticket back into Mr. Klebahn's account in addition to refunding the unaccompanied minor charge. We certainly appreciate their business and would like the opportunity to provide them a better travel experience in the future."

Quite what would represent a satisfactory remedy is something that only the distressed parents can know. However, the extent to whch United's processes are messed up is an altogether different matter. Some commenters have suggested in the past that United's lack of action in the social media space is a root cause problem. That is putting the cart before the horse.

If brands don't care about you as a customer then social media is not going to make a jot of difference. If anything, social media responses will only make the brand look more silly. For the uncaring brand it is an un-necessary distraction. 

If brands get pilloried then it may cause a minor blip on the share price, heads might even roll, but it won't make a long term difference. The BP gulf oil spill incident strikes me as the classic example. Check the company's share price

Social media apologists will no doubt say: 'But if it wasn't for Bob Sutton then national news might never have picked it up.' True - but that doesn't take away from the fact that of itself, social media was not the trigger for a United response, however lame it might seem to many. It was national news which is way more widely consumed and attention grabbing than personal/corporate blogs, the Twitter stream and Facebook combined. Even then I'd argue that the partial attention received by the aggrieved customer may only be a temporary response to quench the firestorm rather than deal with the root cause problems. 

In reality, content without context inside business process is meaningless. Today I would add to that and say, content without context inside business processes that have impact on outcomes is meaningless. In other words, anything United might do on the social media front will never help them fix customer relationships until the broken processes and jobsworth culture is fixed such that service outcomes are radically different.

Now - that's not to say that all social media efforts are useless. It is about how they're played when set against a wider stage that really matters. But I believe it is the edge cases - of which United is one - that demonstrate the need to use these media wisely but against the backdrop of transformation rather than as a knee jerk response to what your corporate mates down the road are doing and then wonder why such projects routinely fail. 

By the way, this also works the other way. Paid for media that uses well established media brands can readily be manpulated. Unfortunately our attention spans are often too short to even register the sometimes blindingly obvious bias that appears.  Forbes AdVoice is a classic example where Bob Evans was once expounding the virtues of SAP over Oracle. Today he spits out at tech commenters on Oracle blogs. Same nonsense, different badge. Anyone outside the cognescenti notice?

Topic: Social Enterprise

Dennis Howlett

About Dennis Howlett

Dennis Howlett is a 40 year veteran in enterprise IT, working with companies large and small across many industries. He endeavors to inform buyers in a no-nonsense manner and spares no vendor that comes under his microscope.

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  • Typo:

    "partonising digital pats on the head"

    Good points otherwise. When you mess stuff up, you have to figure out what's the underlying cause (process or people) and fix it.
  • Jobsworth?

    I've never heard that term before; what does it mean (other than what I pick up from context).
    • Check this definition

  • How did ABC News find out about it?

    I think your analysis is naive. You start to wake up toward the end --> "It is about how they're played when set against a wider stage that really matters." Social media trends trigger news coverage, and bad news stains corporate reputations. But not all corporations is equal when it comes to the need to pay attention to social media. Those corporations that are too big to fail are not only impervious to social media smears, they're above the law, and this is the real issue with the United incident. If you fly certain markets, United's the only nonstop game on town. In markets where a lack of real choice exists, it is far easier for companies to ignore everything but a full blown crisis. But those in more competitive markets need to be more responsive. In those industries where competition is limited, like air travel, health insurance and telecommunications, and the providers have become so big that they employee lobbyists and shell out campaign contributions with real girth, social media is certainly no panacea. You're right about one thing. Social media doesn't bring about change. People do. But as the Arab Spring has shown us, social media can be a powerful enabler for organizing revolutions. Could that be what it will take for quasi-monopolistic corporate giants to behave fairly?
    • I think you are naive...

      There is always a choice. I never fly United regardless of location and I never fly RyanAir in Europe for exactly the same reason. Their services suck and I don't want the pain.

      To your more substantive point - companies only EVER react when they feel financial pain. Neither United nor RyanAir are having those problems. Too many people don't care enough to avoid them.

      Ascribing cause and effect is very dangerous without careful study. Too many apologists have done exactly that without any real proofs.
      • Social Media is already affecting Chick-Fil-A

        Although some have responded with increased support.

        Social Media can affect any company but the key is how many will be motivated by it vs how large the company's influence is. I personally have never heard of this incident (I don't watch TV), but I am guessing United's market presence is greater than the proliferation of this particular social media outrage.

        I stopped going to BP but many people saw the spill and thought "well, it could have happened to any of them."

        The problem isn't social media. If people disagree with the change, are unmoved to change, or simply think the cost of change is too high then they will ignore social media or any other attempt to change their behavior that doesn't directly impact them.

        Changing people's behavior is difficult, but it can and does happen.
  • Still my favorite airline song!

    Tony Burzio
  • Social Media is not a path to a cure for bad service

    I never cease to be amazed at how many people push social media as a cure for poor service. It is NOT a cure. Companies investing money in social media while the underlying customer service process is fataly flawed are wasting thier time and money. There is no doubt that a Tweet or FB posting that goes viral can damage a company's reputation. I suggest that the damage was done long before the posting happened.

    Most consumers will contact a company seeking assistance if there is a problem. When the problem is ignored, then social media becomes the hopeful tool for attaining satisfaction. This process does not happen in reverse.

    UA continues to drive away its loyal customers. Continental is saying bye-bye as well. No social media initiative in the world will save the merged company. Social media is not what's broken.

    When UA/CO decide to restart the airline with new management from top to bottom, they may have a chance of making the merger work. Otherwise, we are looking at 2 airlines who screwed their customers, thus themselves, into the groud. The revenue from the LATAM/APAC routes will not be enough to keep them aloft.