photo by Chad Helig on Flickr

Putting People ahead of Policy

No quacking allowed.

The inevitable backlash against the UA3411 backlash has begun. Those level heads among us have tried to explain that, of course, there are two sides to every story. You see, there are policies; there are procedures. There are laws.

Ken Blanchard calls this appeal to policy “quacking.” We got an elderly man beat up on our plane, but we followed policy! There are established procedures! Bad things might happen if we don’t follow procedures!

Indeed they do.

And worse things happen when you follow policies and procedures blindly without regard for the human dignity of your customers. Worse things like an elderly man gets bloodied and beaten on your airplane. Worse things like millions of people worldwide see it. Worse things like you offend a huge international audience because the victim happened to be east Asian. Worse things happen when you give up your agency, your human power and dignity to become a mindless cog in a policy and procedure machine.

So what was United supposed to do? What can you do for your customers?

We don’t throw policy and procedures out the window at the first sign of trouble. Policies and procedures make life and work predictable and comprehensible. Neither do we let policies and procedures override our essential humanity.

  1. Don’t make a policy your excuse for ruining your customer’s day. 
    How many times have you heard, “Sorry, that’s just policy.” They might as well be saying, “You’re talking to a powerless duck. I have no control, rationality, agency or desire to help you in any way. Die in a fire. QUACK.” You are NOT powerless in the face of blind policy. Instead say, “I’m going to try to help you in any way that I can.” or “Here’s what I can do for you.” or “What would you like for me to do?” or “I understand you’re frustrated. I would be too if I were in your situation. I’m so sorry about this. Is there any middle ground here? Let me tell you what I’m empowered to do and we can figure it out together.” It may be that you can provide very limited help. But you can certainly listen and empathize. You can apologize where appropriate. You can escalate to the next management level.
  2. Recognize the essential humanity of your customers.
    The essential humanity of your customers should be your bedrock reality. They have lives and jobs and kids and schedules. Their backs hurt. They’re overdrawn. They just had a fight with their spouse. They’re hurting, angry, exhausted, and resentful. They have had a really, really bad day and now you’re making it worse. Sure, some of them are just jerks. But they’re still humans trying to meet a need and it’s your great privilege and responsibility to meet them at this time of need and do everything you can to meet that need.
  3. De-escalate the situation. 
    Just to be clear — I’m talking now about a normal interaction with a customer who is irritated or angry. I’m not talking about a violent or altered customer. Unless there is imminent danger to people or property, don’t call the police! Good grief. Talk to the person. Try to understand. Give them five or ten minutes to calm down. Listen. Sympathize. Use the words in #1 above to try to dispel tension and build trust.
  4. Remember that your pride and position are not on the line
    If you get your back up and react out of anger and stubbornness, you may make the customer go away with nothing. That is NOT A WIN. If you win the battle with this customer and she goes away dejected and hurting, you will lose the war. That customer is lost for life. Instead, think WIN WIN. How can we both win this situation? What can I do within policy to make this customer happy? What am I empowered to do? Do everything within your power to defuse the situation and mollify the customer.
  5. Use your head
    The United agents in this situation were on autopilot — a very dumb, worse-than-useless autopilot where they didn’t employ one whit of creativity, compassion, or human empathy to a difficult situation. They immediately went for the easy, “WIN LOSE” situation, which was to invoke the violent power of the state rather than come to an accommodation with a difficult customer. 
    They could have offered more money to other passengers. They could have made an alternate appeal on the intercom. “We’re not leaving until four people get off this plane” is the stupidest thing you could possibly say. Why does a passenger care when a plane leaves if they have to get off it? How about, “Ladies and Gentlemen — we are so sorry for this extremely unusual situation. We’re required to get our flight crew to Louisville and we are out of options. The man we selected to deplane is a physician with patients to see tomorrow morning and he just has to be at work tomorrow morning. Frankly, he ain’t getting off the plane. Could one of you take that $1,000 voucher, a couple meals, and a hotel room and extend your stay in beautiful Chicago for one more night? It’s going to be chilly in Chicago tonight but tomorrow morning will be just gorgeous. Wouldn’t you like to sleep in tomorrow morning and go for a walk in Millennium park afterward? We would be so grateful, and I’m sure this gentleman’s patients would be so grateful to you as well. I tell you what — we’re going to refund your ticket price, give you the grand, and put you on a first-class ticket tomorrow if you’ll see your way to help us out. We really need your help.” 
    And if that didn’t work, you could start asking individual passengers, “Would you be willing to get off the plane now? What about you, sir? Could you possibly spend the night in Chicago tonight?”

You are not a victim of policy. You are not a useless, stupid, powerless duck. You are smart and you are powerful. Don’t quack your way through your job as if your customers are a problem. They are the reason you have a job. They deserve the best you can bring to even the most difficult situation.