| Tuesday July 22nd 2014

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American Airlines Fires Designer Who Reached Out To Disgruntled Customer


A few years back, I remember seeing a fascinating study that showed that how a company responds to a problem or a mistake is more important to customer loyalty than not making any mistakes at all. That is, customers felt more loyal to companies that screwed up, but handled it well, than companies that never screw up at all. If you think about this, it makes a fair amount of sense. At some point or another everyone screws up. Everyone makes a mistake. Customers recognize this. But if a company never makes a mistake, then customers may still wonder how they’ll be treated when that future mistake comes. However, if the mistake has been made, and the response was good, the customer is confident that future mistakes will be handled well also.

American AirlinesOf course, the converse situation is true as well. If a company screws up and then screws up the response as well, it causes tremendous harm to a brand — often in ways that cannot easily be redeemed (if at all). Brendan writes points us to a story of American Airlines seeming to go out of its way to respond poorly to a situation — after someone from the company had first responded well. It started with a blog post written by Dustin Curtis, complaining about the poor user interface design of American Airlines website (including a suggested redesign). He didn’t expect much of a response, but actually received a nice and detailed email from a user design person at American Airlines explaining why it was often tricky to good design at large companies, due to all of the different interests, but says that some good stuff is coming, even if it may take some time.

Now, that’s a good response. It’s human. It explains the situation without PR/marketing speak that a recipient would know was bogus. It is the type of response that makes someone feel good about American Airlines (mostly). So, how did AA respond?

It fired the guy.


Apparently, higher level folks at American Airlines didn’t like the fact that an employee was actually being open and honest with a customer, took the text from Dustin’s post (he hadn’t named the designer), searched through the email system, identified the guy… and fired him… and threatened to sue the guy if he spoke to Dustin again. As Dustin notes:

When I first learned about this, I was horrified. Mr. X is actually a good UX designer, and his email had me thinking there was hope for American Airlines. The guy clearly cared about his work and about the user experience at the company as a whole. But AA fired Mr. X because he cared. They fired him because he cared enough to reach out to a dissatisfied customer and help clear the company’s name in the best way he could.

The guy’s original response was an example of an excellent interaction with a disgruntled customer. It was honest. It responded to his concerns. It was real. It was human. It made Dustin actually reconsider his view of the company. Then, in firing the guy, American Airlines didn’t just wipe out that goodwill, it pushed negative feelings well beyond where things had been before. It made it clear that American Airlines does not value honesty. It showed that American Airlines did not value actually engaging with disgruntled customers. It showed that American Airlines did not value trying to make disgruntled customers happy. And, as such, it’s also probably giving a lot of people very good reasons not to be customers of American Airlines at all.

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