Data could be the fuel that United and others need to soar (and recover)

From American Airlines to United, airlines are currently generating the kind of headlines no brands want to be associated with, whilst generating memes like “board as a doctor, leave as a patient”.

NB: This is an analysis by Johan Hogsander, managing director for Transform.

Reactions to the United saga, in particular, have been wide ranging and well reported, but most of them miss the point.

The CEO of United, for example, blamed the fact that passengers were allowed to board the flight before being told some would have to be taken off.

The fact they need never have reached this point at all, particularly not in an age of deep qualitative insight, data-driven decision making and experience-led service design.

As evidenced by both the United and American Airlines incidents, there are now “citizen journalists” at every conceivable moment of the customer – and in this case literal – journey.

The best-designed journeys take this into account and prepare for the worst case scenario imaginable at each stage, whether a rogue employee or overbooking.

Businesses must avoid the bad experiences that the citizen journalists will report by taking a holistic, systems-driven approach to design.

This means mapping out where the pain points are and designing responses to them upstream in the customer journey.

This ensures the pain points either vanish or that the impact is dramatically reduced – and can even occasionally turn them into pleasant surprises or PR victories, if handled well.


In the case of United (like most large organisations) the focus was on their bigger processes and systems – they required the seats for an aircrew that needed to be at a specific location to make another flight run smoothly.

They felt justified for two reasons.

  • The small print stated they could remove the passenger from the flight.
  • In an aircraft the captain has ultimate authority – so they were legally covered.

This attitude positions the individual customer at the bottom of the food chain, just a statistical blip to be ironed out.

It also ignores the importance of customer perception and potential damage to the brand name, whilst handing over key steps of “delivery” to external parties – in this case the law enforcement officers who have no interest in United’s reputation, but simply felt the need to “do their job”.

One strand of thought that has emerged is that “passengers must acknowledge that low fares means low service”.

This is simplistic and an example of poor service thinking.

In the case of American Airlines, the brand was quick to distance themselves from the behaviour of the flight attendant, saying “the action of our team member captured here do not appear to reflect patience or empathy, two values necessary for customer care”.

Fundamentally the argument was again sparked by the lack of clarity around pain points and was ultimately preventable.

The difference here, however, is that the situation was handled far more smoothly by the brand.

Data key to tackling issues

Through smart service design and use of smart data (rather than just big data), we can map the requirements of the business to the qualitative needs of customers and staff and understand the right moments in the customer journey to deploy human or digital services.

The key is to empower staff to use this data effectively.

United could have gauged at an early stage in the booking process whether someone was willing to leave a flight with a cash reward, or whether they absolutely could not.

It could then put this information in the staff hands and provide them with the tools to make offers and negotiate. If this fails, equip them with the evidence that makes it clearer to a passenger why they have to leave the flight.

American Airlines similarly could have used data to assess the needs of their customers in advance, and prepare accordingly.

Although simplistic, these example illustrates an opportunity to humanise your service and gets away from the monolithic, process-driven thinking plaguing large organisations today.

In large organisations, staff are increasingly likely to blame bureaucracy and “rules” when things go wrong.

It absolves blame and removes the option of negotiation. If, on the other hand, you give power to the staff member through information and control over incentives, you signal to both employees and customers that you respect them.

Digital solutions as enablers

You can gather as much data and build as many apps you want, but if you don’t change your culture, processes and relationship with customers, nothing will improve.

The good news is that digital makes so much possible that wasn’t before – faster information sharing, earlier prediction of pain points and more rapid communication around solutions.

There has never been a better time to re-design your services, because there have never been better tools to build great service with.

NB: This is an analysis by Johan Hogsander, managing director for Transform.

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