Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word

Unless you gave up all media for Lent, you’ve no doubt heard about the United Airlines fiasco in which a paid passenger was dragged off a plane to be replaced by a United employee who needed a seat. The incident — caught on camera, of course — prompted millions of angry comments, a presumptive mass exodus of customers and a $1.4 billion drop in United Airlines stock.
United CEO Oscar Munoz only fanned the flames of discontent with his tone-deaf response: “I apologize for having to re-accommodate customers.” (Ironically, just last month, PR Week honored him as “Communicator of the Year.”)
But beneath the surface of this abysmal incident lurks a powerful lesson in customer service. We spoke with Tim Huckabee who, through his company Floral Strategies, has trained more than 5,000 florists to communicate better with customers. He shared how United might have stopped the bleeding and what you should do the next time you encounter a complaint.

A metaphor for United’s reputation
F20: It’s hard to fathom a flower shop doing anything remotely as cringeworthy as manhandling a customer, but we all screw up now and again. Let’s say a florist mixes up an order and sends an arrangement with a “Happy anniversary!” balloon to a woman who just lost her husband, forgets a bridesmaid’s bouquet when delivering a wedding order, or stuffs a centerpiece full of carnations when the sender specifically prohibited them. What’s the first thing he/she should do upon realizing the mistake? 
TH: The best next step is to take ownership of the mistake and have a resolution ready. If it’s possible to reach the customer before the offending flowers are delivered, do so. We’re human; we’re liable to make mistakes. Hopefully, the customer will take this in stride and remember the resolution, not the mistake.
F20: In your opinion, what did the United CEO do wrong with his response? What would you have said if you were him? 
TH: I am astonished at how unprofessional and sophomoric Mr. Munoz’s response was — akin to the way children act when bickering on the playground! Had I been in his place, I would have had handled it very differently, starting with reaching every passenger and refunding their fare. I would have gone on to pay the medical bills for the passenger, sent a representative from United to offer a sincere apology, and given him free travel for life.
In the public arena, I would have expressed shock, dismay and disappointment in the way the situation was handled. I would have explained that, clearly, the current protocol does not work and would request an immediate halt to the practice while an alternate, customer favored — not United favored — program was developed. Finally, I would have offered some sort of “confidence contract” to the public expressing that United was endeavoring to change this policy as it became immediately clear that customers were not being prioritized the way they should be.
F20: Piggybacking on the last question: What do you think of the CEO’s phrase “re-accomodated”? Why should you avoid jargon when talking to a customer?
Don’t mince words — take blame and move forward. NEVER blame a customer, even if they are at fault. Your dialogue with an unhappy customer should be humble and peppered with regret and intention to settle this situation and avoid it in the future, at any cost.
F20: Let’s talk about fine print. Millions of Americans learned this week that, every time they buy a plane ticket, they’re agreeing to potentially give up their paid seat in the event of overbooking. I know florists have some policies that customers might not realize (orders received after 3 p.m. will be delivered the following morning; deliveries plus or minus two days of a holiday incur a surcharge; if requested flower is unavailable, a substitute will be used). What are some best practices to avoid angering a customer in the event one of these things occurs?
TH: To start, make sure your policies are fair and make sense for both parties. If a customer breaks the rules, take it in stride but stand your ground. For example: “Mrs Jones, we do have a 7-day freshness guarantee. Calling us three weeks after your Mom’s birthday flowers were delivered makes it impossible for us to determine why they lasted only two days. HOWEVER, as a courtesy, I am going to send her a replacement with our best wishes. All that I ask is that you inform us immediately in the future if there is ever an issue with any flowers ordered from us.”
F20: Regardless of what happens when the doctor’s inevitable lawsuit goes to trial, United has lost big-time in the court of public opinion. What are your tips for responding to criticism in the age of social media? 
TH: Honesty is the best policy. Make sure that you address the issue based on facts, not emotions. You will never win every battle but if you have a reasonable defense to a customer’s unreasonable claim, you’ll come out looking good. Customers are suspect of any organization that has nothing but stellar reviews. Plus, a mad or disappointed customer gives you the chance to demonstrate your company’s customer service approach!
For more advice on recovering from a flub with grace, check out Huckabee’s webinar “Handle Complaints Better.”