In the age of social media, trying to control for every eventuality is not the answer if you want to deliver outstanding customer service.

United Airlines hit the headlines when footage of one of their customers being dragged off a plane went viral.

I don’t wish to comment on the specifics, rights and wrongs of this story, however what cannot be debated is the effect the incident had on United’s brand reputation. It also had a dramatic, albeit short lived, effect on the holding company’s share price – in the aftermath of the event United Continental Holdings share price dropped by over 4% at one point, wiping nearly $1billion off market cap.

Social media means incidents like this can have catastrophic consequences for brands. Stick #badcustomerservice into Twitter and you’ll find countless stories from grumpy customers.

Contrast the United incident with another airline industry story from the day before. A Turkish Airlines crew helped a woman deliver her baby on board one of their planes. This heartwarming, positive customer service story also made mainstream media headlines but the traction on social media was a fraction of the intensity of the United story. Retweets were in the hundreds, as opposed to the hundreds of thousands that retweeted the United videos.

Why bad service gets attention

As human beings we are predisposed to notice negative events more quickly and respond to them more strongly than positive ones.

The theory is that evolution has equipped us with the tools to notice and respond quickly to situations that might harm us. Because they are less likely to have an immediate effect on our chances of survival, we don’t notice positive events as readily and they are less likely to impel us to react.

I think we can see this effect playing out in the social media responses to these two airline customer service stories. The emotional response and active criticism of the United Airlines story is far greater than that of the Turkish Airlines story.

What does this mean in practice?

If you’re managing a large organisation with thousands of front line customer facing employees who at any moment will behave in ways that might delight or outrage your customers, here’s my advice…

  1. Invest in your front line teams. These people are the most important to customers but they’re often neglected – as is highlighted in this HBR article: Why do we spend so much developing senior leaders and so little training new managers?How would your organisation measure up if you compared your training spend on your front line teams versus senior leaders?
  2. Train behavioural skills not just compliance and procedure. When investing in your front line teams, don’t just focus on training the ‘right’ processes. Great front line team management and behaviours are critical to creating authentic personable service.
  3. Empower people to do the right thing. United’s CEO initially defended the actions of his staff on the basis that they had followed appropriate processes and that the customer who was dragged off the flight was “disruptive and belligerent”. Although he has now issued a full apology amid the ongoing uproar, this initial response is telling of an organisational culture that does not support or encourage reasonable judgement by the people working on the front line of the business. It is impossible to create a process that can respond to every possible customer encounter. Instead of trying to control what your people do, you need to create a culture in which they are trusted to make decisions and act on their initiative to resolve things when they go wrong.
  4. Share examples of how you expect your people to treat and respond to customers. Seek out and share stories of human and responsive customer service within your organisation. These act as examples for your people to copy and help to build up customer loyalty and trust.