Lessons in customer service from United Airlines: What customer service can do for your brand

Customer service can be the force behind a brand. It can drive growth, employee satisfaction, profits, and propel a company forward.

Branding Through Customer Service Over the years, the number one driver of our growth at Zappos has been repeat customers and word of mouth. Our philosophy has been to take most of the money we would have spent on paid advertising and invest it into customer service and the customer experience instead, letting our customers do the marketing for us through word of mouth.
— Tony Hsieh, Zappos CEO
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Companies like Zappos tout the importance of customer service. At what point will this level of service be expected in other industries and will public incidents force companies in this direction?

After the United Airlines incident, several brand lessons can be learned with regard to customer service.

Lesson 1: Word of Mouth is the ultimate brand currency.

Word of Mouth is increasingly important in a digital environment. Product recommendations, experiences, and talk about brands is pervasive and can help decide purchasing behavior.

A negative experience with a brand will be amplified many times across social media. Be careful about your brand is portrayed by customers and employees. Remember that you can control aspects of your brand image, especially customer service. Instead of outsourcing or minimizing expenses, companies should be investing in better brand experiences which can - for businesses like airlines- revolve around their service.

Lesson 2: Respond to customer concerns.

Remember who your customers are and make sure they are satisfied with their experience. When a customer is paying and engaging in your service or product, it's a brands responsibility to make sure that the experience is satisfactory. When it's not, it's important to respond promptly and try to rectify the situation.

Right after the most recent United Airlines incident, the CEO posted the following tweet that failed to take responsibility or apologize for the situation:

It took an extra day for the CEO to apologize.

The best way to respond to customer dissatisfaction is promptly. And if social media is involved rather than a face to face interaction, do your best to make sure you get it right the first time.

Lesson 3: Remember who is the face of your brand- front line employees.

A couple days after the United Airlines incident, I flew into Houston. The captain came out and welcomed us to our flight and announced that he had a specific spiel he had to read where he assured us that United would attend to our needs.

Front line employees on my previous flight were not as openly accommodating. While United may have been reminded that customer service is an important part of their brand experience, they may not realize it is one of the most important touch points customers can have.

Employee training in customer service and how to handle incidents is a great way for brands to proactively address their brand experience. For example, Zappos has every employee - from executive to entry level no matter the department - go through customer service training so they can understand and work from a customer service perspective.

Moving forward?

While social media outrage is outpouring, the public has a short memory. With only a small dip in stock, Wall Street is betting on United Airlines to continue doing well.

At what point do people no longer look for exceptional customer service? The removal of paying customers and a general lack of concern over the well being of a given passenger is why United Airlines is feeling the heat. However, their share only dipped 1.1%.

Value and customer service can be thought of along a spectrum from no touch to high touch. No touch being minimal customer service and high touch being very involved service.

Nordstrom and Zappos offer great value and selection of products, while having a very high touch customer service that engages customers to deliver a great customer experience. Amazon would be high value because of their selection and prices, whereas they offer low touch service because of their innovative interface (like one touch shopping). High value because of their low prices and convenience would be Walmart, but they offer no touch to minimal customer service.

Will United begin moving toward portion of the spectrum that is less involved in customer service because they know customers ultimately care about safety, destination, and convenience? Or will they re-dedicate themselves to serving their customers the best way possible?

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