So a passenger gets forcibly dragged off a plane…

… because it was overbooked. Very bad PR for United Airlines. What does it mean for us, in technology support roles?

1.    Plan ahead for how to handle foreseeable delicate situations
For United, what to do in overbooking situations. It’s hard to believe that dragging a passenger off a plane could strike anyone as the right strategy. Surely some passengers would have left willingly for the right compensation, which would have been much cheaper than the cost of handling the current kerfuffle.

For us, what to do when support issues attain milestone birthdays, when bugs take forever to get fixed, or when our systems wipe out customers’ data. Walk through what you will do calmly, before you have an emergency on your hands, so you can weigh the pros and cons of each strategy.

2.    Include your partners in the planning process
For United, the security agents and local police. Using force is something that police officers do: was that not clear to the United planners?

For us, implementation partners, outsourcing vendors, the engineering team, anyone who has a role to play in solving issues for customers.

3.    Monitor social media
For United, the entire media, traditional or not, seemed to relish sharing the problem well beyond US borders.

For us, we may perceive that social media and especially traditional media just is not the forum where our customers will emote (but we may be wrong!). At a minimum, monitor customer communities.

4.    Control the dialog
For United, a stern public statement that employees did the right thing does not cut it (even though it’s a nice sentiment to back the employees).

For us, always reach out to the individual customer in private. We don’t always need public statements but when we do, start with concern for the individuals involved (not the policy). And apologies should not be marketing speak. They must show our humanity, our humility, and our concern for customers.

5.    See beyond the contract
For United, there is a clear overbooking clause on tickets, but at the same time passengers who are in their seats reasonably expect that they will fly.

For us, our support contracts promise exactly nothing (re-read yours: I bet you are not saying that you will fix any bug, ever!) but there is an expectation that severe problems will be remedied promptly, and that there will be a reasonable dialog for others. Don’t pretend that customers will abide by the letter of what they signed.

6.    Go to the top
For United, it went to the top allright, but the CEO seemed tone-deaf stressing process over people.

For us, remember that executives (non-support executives) have relatively little experience working with aggrieved customers, and they may be very uncomfortable at the prospect of having to do it. Provide handholding, reassurance, scripts. We are good at this stuff.

7.    Learn from mistakes
For United, after this debacle, we can hope that a serious discussion will take place about handling overbooking situations.

For us, hold a postmortem after each escalation. Even if the outcome is very bad, you can salvage some good by using the situation as a learning tool.

What have you done to pre-plan for PR disasters? Please share in the comments.


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