This week, United Express flight 3411 from Chicago to Louisville made headlines for the mistreatment of a customer onboard. In order to accommodate airline employees who were needed on a flight from Louisville the next day, customers were “re-accommodated” and forced to change their travel plans after boarding the flight. The forceable removal of one passenger was captured on video and quickly went viral.

Like many airlines, it seems United has forgotten the old mantra about the customer coming first.

What Happens When You Forget About the Customer

We recently attended a workshop by Highland Solutions on the customer experience, where they proclaimed “your customers’ experience is the only durable competitive advantage”. It was a compelling message, and we at Vantage have known this to be true, as we’ve built our business around customer intimacy and forging deep relationships. This concept is long-gone in the airline industry monopoly, where the importance of the customer experience has been overshadowed by the importance of profit, on-time departure records, and execution.

Of course, execution of your business is a critical component to success. But a focus on execution above all else creates the environment for many of the ethical scandals we have seen in recent years; consider Volkswagen and Wells Fargo to name a few. In the United example, the airline’s stock dropped $1.4B on Tuesday, prompting an apology from CEO Oscar Munoz, and ultimately closing down $250M in market cap.

This highlights a key leadership learning: emphasizing execution and results above all else is simply short sighted. You may have achieved the goal for today, but what did you have to sacrifice to do so?

A Shift to Refocus on the Customer

We at Vantage are seeing more and more of our clients seeking to refocus on the customer, and with good reason. As every industry faces disruption from technological advances and the sharing economy, consumers are becoming more demanding, and their complaints have greater reach. Social media provides consumers instant access to issues, and outraged customers quickly send these incidents ‘viral’- it was almost astonishing the speed at which the United video moved, and the number of memes it spawned.

Brand loyalty is not what it used to be, as customers focus more heavily on their experience and customization of products and services to meet their unique needs. The country’s longest-held institutions are feeling the squeeze—and focusing in on the needs of the customer just to compete.

Making the Shift

This renewed focus is often at odds with the way businesses operate, and transformative change is a difficult, messy, and lengthy process. While each organization faces different challenges, here are three things you can do to learn from United’s mistake and increase your business’s customer focus:

  1. Map your customers’ experience. Customer experience mapping is a process of applying an outside-in perspective to understand and strengthen the customer’s experience. Understanding the thoughts, feelings, and actions required by customers throughout their engagement with you can be quite an enlightening experience. Once you are able to look at your business truly through the customers’ eyes, you’d be surprised at the emergence of ideas and insights into how to better service their needs. Often, these are minor adjustments to how you do business that make a big change in the ease for the customer.
  2. Re-evaluate how people are rewarded. Is your annual bonus pool based on results and execution metrics or customer satisfaction? No wonder your employees are putting profits first. For airlines, the annual Department of Transportation’s Airline Quality Rating (AQR) does include a measure of customer satisfaction, but is muddied in the composite score by other indicators such as on-time arrivals (a results-metric instead of a people-metric).
  3. Focus on values and behaviors, and assume results will follow. We have a client who likes to say, “results are the price of admission”. If you are unable to achieve, you will not succeed. This organization recently removed achieving results from their competency model, because results should not be the focus. If you are creating an environment where employees can exemplify the organizational values and exhibit the right behaviors, the results you seek should follow. Maybe not today, and you won’t win them all, but over time you will create a sustainable customer base built on trust and positive interactions.

What is your organization doing to put your customers front and center? What disruptions have you seen in your industry that create a renewed focus on the customer experience? Have you engaged in customer experience mapping in your business? Let us know in the comments. Reach out if you’d like to talk to us about culture change, identifying and embedding the right leadership behaviors, and developing your leaders to live out your organizational values.