What the United Airlines video teaches us about company culture

Paul Boag

Senior management saying that they care about the customer experience is not enough. This has to translate into a culture that encourages customer centric decisions on the ground.

By now you have already seen the video of United Airline staff having security remove a customer by force from a flight. Not because he was disruptive, but because the Airline had overbooked. They needed the seat to transfer their personnel between locations.

United selected this customer at random. When he refused to leave the seat he had paid for; security decided to remove him by force.

The decision was obviously a huge lapse in judgement. It has led to an enormous social media backlash that will damage United’s already struggling brand. Since the incident, the PR team at United have been going into overdrive. They have been trying to repair the impact of those who made this decision.

Why did staff make such a poor decision?

But why did people on the ground think this was the right move? Why couldn’t they see the devastation it would cause? Or why were they unable to conceive of the other obvious solutions?

The answer lies in the culture that United has nurtured. A culture based on processes and policy, rather than people. Unfortunately, this is a culture that is all too prevalent in companies. A culture that I encourage us to challenge in my book User Experience Revolution.

Is your company so different?

I have worked with many management teams who want to create a great customer experience. So often that doesn’t translate into what happens on the ground. That is because they haven’t built the right culture. A culture that prioritises customers and empowers staff. Empowers them to make decisions that put the customer first.

It was evident that from the United staff’s perspective they had no choice. The system had selected this customer to leave, and so they had to get him off the plane. There was no flexibility. The system didn’t care he was a doctor that had to treat patients the next day at his destination. The system didn’t allow them to offer greater financial incentives. Or transport their staff in another way. The system didn’t even enable the staff to show any judgement in who was asked to leave.

Are your processes destroying the humanity of staff?

In short, the system didn’t allow or encourage their employees to act like human beings. Instead United treated them like factory workers on a production line that cannot stop. This is thinking left over from the mass market, mass production economy. It is from the world long since gone. The world where the customer was a commodity and didn’t have the power to bring a major brand name to its knees with nothing more than passive resistance and a smartphone.