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Fix It Now—and How: Improve Company Reputation by Empowering Your Best Brand Ambassadors (A.K.A., Your Employees)

With lifelong customers cutting up United Airlines’ affiliation cards, politicians introducing new legislation, and cable news pundits vigorously debating the company missteps in the wake of the recent passenger removal incident, a firestorm of questions have been raised about how a high-profile global company both treats loyal customers and should best respond to a such a reputation-damaging incident.

But there is an additional and perhaps equally important question being given little airtime: what if there was a way to avoid such blunders altogether by creating a culture of employee empowerment uniquely attuned with your customers’ needs? In other words, what if United Airlines had taken a different tack—one of allowing their front-line employees to use their good judgment as opposed to strict adherence to policy? 

Make no mistake, the ambassadors of your brand are everywhere in your company. Consider your last hotel stay. Did the bellman assist with your baggage? How did the front desk handle check-in?  Was the concierge correct with the coordinates of your meeting?  Did housekeeping respond to your request for a turn down?  Was your room service order correct?  Each of these individuals is charged with delivering the hotel’s brand, and any of them can influence your stay as well as your opinion of their property.

They are all likely empowered toward the same goal—to make sure their customer-related decisions come from a place of generosity, thoughtfulness and kindness. In other words, treat people “as they would want to be treated.” It seems like common sense, doesn’t it?

It also seems like good advice for beleaguered United Airlines CEO, Oscar Munoz, who should strongly consider the upside (he’s already very familiar with the downside) of empowering his brand ambassadors—all 86,000 employees—to make an immediate shift in this direction while he makes a cultural one within the company.

It wasn’t just the widely-reported passenger incident that has sent United Airlines into this spiral. Recently, there was the soon-to-be-married couple en route to Costa Rica, tossed from their flight because they wanted to sit in (and were willing to pay for) Economy Plus seats. And just a few days ago, a passenger was stung by a scorpion, of all things, lurking in the overhead bin. Flying the friendly skies, are we?

Creating a program or policy—the right kind—that instills a “pay it forward” or “random act of kindness” sense of empowerment in brand ambassadors would go a very long way in putting out the United Airlines fire, which currently shows no signs of slowing with the overbooked flight fiasco that will keep the airline’s general counsel busy, and awake at night, handling the inevitable lawsuit coming their way.
 
What would such a program mean in practice?  Well, for the future newlyweds, why not “comp” them Economy Plus and give them champagne to celebrate their upcoming nuptials?  This action would have cost little, provided a memorable experience for passengers and demonstrated a very different kind of reaction and customer value proposition. And, the individual who was stung by the scorpion—instead of initially saying that the injury was not serious and downplaying the incident, why not offer the passenger a note from the captain extending him complimentary drinks and free entertainment? 

These examples of United Airlines putting themselves in the shoes of their customers would have resulted in positive experiences rather than reinforcing negative ones. While it may be too early to tell what the long-term fallout will be for United Airlines, taking the high road to positivity in all customer interactions may be the most immediate—and relatively easy to implement—way to turn the fleet around.

Any company that finds itself dealing with a reputation issue that has the potential to eradicate its customer base, torpedo its share price, and cause what might be irreparable harm to its reputation has an opportunity to handle the situation in a way that can effectively mediate the events and avoid further damage to the brand. 

Putting yourself in your customers’ shoes is a good place to start.

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