United Has Plenty of Company in Playing it Cheap

Tony Compton, Managing Director
GettingPresence

The damage is done.

United’s brand and reputation have been irreparably harmed for a generation, at minimum.

Once upon a time I was a #United frequent flyer. I think I have over 400k lifetime miles on the airline. I’m not 100% certain of that number because I haven’t flown United since last summer, and I just don’t feel like checking my UA frequent flyer account. And for this #Chicago born and raised traveler, I can’t say I was totally surprised to learn about what had happened with one of their passengers. Shocked, angry, disgusted… yep. Surprised? Not really.

The world now knows what far too many ORD flyers have known about United for years: the airline is – to say the least – operationally challenged. The way it has served its customers has been deteriorating for years and I’d given up on United, flying them only when absolutely necessary.

Then this incident in Chicago happened.

No doubt you’ve heard about the firestorm that has engulfed United Airlines this past week. But this post isn’t a rehash of the events that transpired this past Sunday. It’s an article that examines one specific element within the sequence of events that got the airline to where it finds itself today. One particular business aspect of the rotten customer experience that United executives and investors surely wish they could get back. It’s one that was controllable, would have made economic sense, and one that United CEO Oscar Munoz would go back in time to retrieve if given the opportunity. But that ship sailed on Sunday, and now it’s too late.

I’m talking about the $800 (USD) ceiling that was the cutoff between the final offer from the airline to entice volunteers to stay the night in Chicago and the start of the passenger selection and eviction process which led to the physical incident with Dr. David Dao. The compensatory offers from the airline to the passengers on that Chicago to Louisville flight should’ve increased. Eventually some passengers would’ve taken a higher amount to give up their seats. Even if they had to get to their final destination, a few may have (or should have) put on their thinking caps and ran the numbers: $800 (or more) minus a one-day car rental to Louisville – minus gas – equals profit for themselves. Even if that profit came in the form of a voucher for future United travel. The drive from Chicago-O’Hare to Louisville is only five hours, and I’ve driven it many, many times. It’s a piece of cake. But I digress…

The point is that United played it cheap with its passenger offers, and it’ll cost the airline exponentially more than the small amount of extra funds it would’ve taken to get one of its Louisville-bound customers to accept an offer for their seat. Sad part about it is United isn’t alone in playing it cheap. Far from it. They have plenty of company across all industries in the form of other organizations which think it’s either perfectly acceptable to gamble with certain business situations, not invest in critical areas of their business, remain ignorant or stubborn in their corporate arrogance, and conduct business as usual with their heads in the clouds.

Until it’s too late.

From a #sales, #marketing, #technology, and #socialmedia perspective, here’s how:

1. Professional Development

Employees are continuously asked to write, present, and communicate. Market, sell, and service customers. To organize and run meetings, lead teams, resolve problems, and perform at a high level. But when it comes to provide professional business coaching for any of the above, most companies fall short or offer their employees nothing at all. Yet employees are thrown into situations when they’re either not equipped for success or nothing has been done to maintain and upgrade their skills. And for those who claim that employees should have certain professional skills when they’re hired and that they don’t need to provide additional support… I’m certain Michael Jordan knew how to play basketball before joining the Chicago Bulls. Tiger Woods knew how to play golf before and after he won his first Masters tournament. Yet they always had coaches to improve their games. They were at the top of their games and still needed coaching and practice. All companies should do the same for their employees. (And no, those once-a-year two day cookie cutter training sessions don’t suffice.)

When is it too late? Every time a speaker is ill-prepared for a presentation, a rep isn’t prepped for a customer interaction, a webinar unfolds with a lackluster approach, a time-wasting team meeting is held, a company’s brand and reputation are damaged.

2. Trade Show Sponsorships and Exhibits

A juicy Silver-level sponsorship at the next industry event is secured. Not platinum, nor Gold, but it includes a 10’ x 10’ booth location in a decent, but not great, area within the exhibit hall. But beyond the initial sponsorship investment, not much is done by the sponsoring company to succeed at the event. A homemade booth, constructed by a combination of sales, marketing, and office staff who should be doing something far more productive occupies the exhibit space. Poor exhibit messaging, no staff preparation, and five-figures of investment flushed down the toilet. And the sponsoring company wonders why the attendee world didn’t come running to their exhibit? Corporate damage at an event, complete.

When is it too late? Most likely weeks or months before an events starts, but certainly one minute after the exhibit hall doors open.

3. Live from… Trade Shows, Conferences, and Events

The ongoing frustration with inept speakers giving bad, text-and-tech heavy presentations has been a cross-industry plague for decades. Today, lousy presenters aren’t confined to the ballroom. Everybody walks the convention hall and its exhibit hall floor with a video camera and mobile TV studio in their pockets. Show attendees will put your naive employees on live television on a moment’s notice – with disastrous results. I’ve seen it happen and that content lasts forever. If each and every one of your event-bound staff are not fully prepared for how they will be seen and heard on-camera, a company is gambling with its brand and reputation.

When is it too late? As soon as somebody hits that camera button on their smartphone or tablet and streams live, from your booth, demo, or event session.

4. Voice, Video, and Media

Some companies place little value in the voice of their corporate content. I’m talking about the actual voice that is used to voiceover company productions that can range from ebooks, to demos, to radio and TV commercials, to event videos. More, some companies place little value in the video and voice of their corporate content. About that, I’m talking about the notion that turning on a smartphone camera is all it takes to produce compelling, thought-provoking, lead generating content that will attract and hold an audience. And what about simply transferring bad presentations into streaming media, thinking that will do the trick?

When is it too late? The moment somebody sees and hears your employees or multimedia content and realizes your prep and production values are garbage. Then hits the off button and tells two friends, who tell two friends…

5. Technology, Across-the-Board

Still running your Commodore 64 corporate laptops on IE7? Using software that’s outdated, not integrated, not maintained, nor supported? Still too cheap to consider the tech tools that can actually make your team more efficient and much more effective in their pursuit of identifying new customers, enabling sales, servicing customers, and winning new business?

The year is 2017, not 2009. The recession is long over and it’s the employees holding the job market cards, not the companies. The time for employees to accept less-than-minimal tech support from companies because of tough economic times and fear of job acquisition or loss is over.

When is it too late? The moment a company starts losing the competitive recruiting and turnover battle for talent.

It’s possible to extensively extend this list and go even further. Chances are that you’re aware of many situations where a company is being cheap at its own risk. Some executives turn away from the business suggestions and pleas from its employees, customers, and partners in order to short-sightedly save a buck or two. Some succeed at getting away with it. Others get away with it until something goes wrong, but then it’s too late and very costly.

Unfortunately, there are those who will only take action when something goes terribly wrong.

United investors and executives had every opportunity to listen and handle their business differently, but they chose another path – no matter what the slick on-board pre-departure videos produced over the years said. Their public relations failed. Their corporate #communications failed. Their #customer relations failed. And yes, they were cheap and arrogant about the whole damn thing.

Play it cheap, and gamble with your own business at your own risk.

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