In my April 2017 Newsletter, I said that the way we draw our maps betrays our priorities: Just as empires put their capitals in the centre of the map, businesses often put the company at the centre, rather than the customer – a bad idea.

The same week, as one of my readers noted, United Airlines obligingly illustrated my point. As you probably saw, United threw a paying passenger off a plane about to leave Chicago for Louisville to make room for an off-duty flight crew. Due to an error, the crew were in the wrong city. They needed to be in Louisville to operate a flight the next morning.

The passenger was apparently selected arbitrarily. To add injury to insult, in the process of removing him on behalf of the airline, ‘local law enforcement’ broke his nose and knocked out a couple of teeth. The incident was filmed on smartphones and uploaded to the Internet where the footage went viral, causing an international furore.

Who was in the centre of the map?

Senior management at United have failed to translate their intentions (Fly the friendly skies) into reality. Could this incident possibly have happened if customers, rather than the company and its operational considerations, were at the centre of United staff’s map?

The United staff thought it more important to get the flight crew into position for the next day rather than get a paying passenger to his destination.

Yet had they put customer at the centre, they would naturally have left him on the flight, and could easily have solved the crew problem by hiring an air taxi, or even a bus (with bunk beds?) for the 4.5-hour drive.

What can we learn?

The United example is extreme. But it’s worth reflecting on how easy it is in any business to end up prioritising company procedures over customers.

Top management might protest: “We are always talking about putting the customer at the centre of things.”

Often true, but as a customer yourself, don’t you regularly experience a mismatch between the rhetoric and what actually happens on the ground?

Execs fail to translate their intention to put customers in the centre when they:

  • Talk in ambiguous or nonsensical management-speak (look at the United CEO’s initial response to the incident for a classic example).
  • Contradict their words with their actions.
  • Hide away in the C-suite and fail to check for themselves what is really happening on the ground.

Instead they’d be much better to:

  • Be really clear, in specific rich detail, about exactly how things are when the company operates with the customer at the centre.
  • Look for where the company is already conforming to those behaviours, reward them and spread them around.
  • Discuss Moments of Truth – those times when an interaction defines the relationship with the customer, especially for good (Jan Carlzon transformed SAS Group – Scandinavian Airlines – with this in the 1980s and wrote a good book about it).
  • Spend some time on the front line, serving customers themselves.
  • Find as many ways as possible to get good feedback about what is going on in the company – ideally seeing it for themselves.

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