What WAS United’s CEO Thinking When He Tried to Blame the Customer?

How Could United Airlines CEO Oscar Muñoz Have Flubbed This So Badly?

And What Can Other CEOs Learn From This?

“What WAS he thinking?”

That’s how many of us reacted when we heard United Airlines CEO, Oscar Muñoz’s initial reactions to the incident of the peaceful passenger dragged violently off a United flight recently.

It is hard to imagine anybody watching the video and starting by blaming the customer. Assuming Muñoz is a decent human being, and I think that’s a safe assumption in this case — a jerk probably wouldn’t have won the Communicator of the Year Award — there are a couple of things that presumably led to Muñoz’s unempathetic reaction:

  1. Legal Fears. The standard corporate response to bad publicity in the pre-Internet days, when Muñoz was working his way up the corporate ladder, was to say as little as possible and couch it in language crafted by lawyers. Lawyers, of course, will always advise saying nothing that would suggest your company could have been the guilty party.
  2. Out of Touch. I suspect that it has been a very long time since Oscar Muñoz has traveled — incognito — as an economy class passenger on his or any other airline. When you always get treated as nobility, it is hard to relate to the peasants.
When you always get treated as nobility, it is hard to relate to the peasants.

Given Muñoz’s likely travel experiences since reaching the upper echelons of management, it would be natural for him to assume that if somebody was dragged off a plane, screaming, that person must have been “disruptive and belligerent.” Why else would my kind, gentle, considerate staff treat someone in that way?

Such treatment would be totally inconsistent with his life experiences.

Why Good People Make Bad Decisions

Losing touch with the actual customer experience often happens long before someone reaches the executive suite (although the further up the ladder you go, the more you lose touch).

Back in the late 1980s, when banks were first starting to impose bank fees for services that had long been considered a normal part of the package when you opened an account (things like paying to access your own funds!), I worked in the banking industry. One of the big fringe benefits for staff was that we didn’t have to pay bank fees.

I worked as a marketer at the time, and I made myself unpopular by advocating that staff should have to pay the same fees as our customers. Because otherwise, we couldn’t relate to their grievance at being “nickel and dimed” by the big bad banks. (I lost that battle, and ultimately got laid off. Hmm… I wonder if there was a connection?)

Go Undercover

As an independent customer experience practitioner I’ve been urging senior executives for years to “go undercover.” Find out what it is really like for your customers.

Reports and charts won’t get the message through at the visceral level

It is too easy to look at a customer attrition rate and not worry about it as long as the company is still profitable. (Or even if it isn’t profitable but you are still getting a big bonus.)

Going undercover is also important for finding out what your staff are experiencing. It is one thing to tell staff that they have to remove a passenger from a plane; quite another to actually have to do it.

It is one thing to tell staff that they have to remove a passenger from a plane; quite another to actually have to do it.

We’ve heard that one of the three men who dragged Dr. Dao off the plane has been put on leave, nothing has been said about the staff who called for help. I suspect they’ll need trauma counselling. Sadly, as Muñoz acknowledged in a later interview, the airline’s rules didn’t give staff discretion to use good judgement.

On the show Undercover Boss invariably the CEOs say that they were shocked to discover what their staff and customers are really experiencing.

It shouldn’t be a surprise. And you don’t have to go on a TV show to find out.

As a senior executive you simply must make time, often, to see for yourself what’s happening on the front lines.

And, yes, that may mean putting on a wig and sunglasses so you won’t be recognized.

Do it. Because odds are nobody’s going to tell you unless and until there’s a crisis.

Even if they do, few emperors want to believe they have no clothes.

(A version of this article first appeared on April 12, 2017, on LinkedIn.

You can also hear my interview with Dave Carroll — the guy who did the United Breaks Guitars video at the Frank Reactions website. He kind of predicted this.)

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