Tuesday, April 11, 2017

United Airlines and the Dollars and Cents of Customer Experience

We have all seen the video of the bleeding man being dragged from his United Airlines flight. We've seen all the social media rage. We've endured debates over whether it was the fault of employees, poor corporate policies, an unruly passenger or bad judgment on the part of a police officer put in a no-win situation. And we've read the articles critiquing United's communications about the situation.

But at the end of the day, will this damage United's business as some claim? The answer is no and yes and is a customer experience lesson for business leaders.

No, It Will Not Harm Demand for United's Flights

For all the breadth and depth of emotion, this situation is unlikely to cause people to change their airline purchase behaviors. We know this because this is hardly the first time an airline has faced this sort of social media backlash. Heck, United Airlines is the prototype for precisely this circumstance!

"United Breaks Guitars" was one of the first stories any of us heard about the power of social media and how it was changing brands. In Spring 2008, Dave Carroll got off his United Airlines flight and found his Taylor guitar damaged. He spent nine months trying to get the airline to make it right, and in frustration, he wrote a catchy tune and produced a funny YouTube video recounting his story. It went viral, and United belatedly offered Carroll compensation.

To professionals in the nascent field of social media, Dave Carroll was not just a skilled and creative guy whose unique talents and situation permitted a special way to elevate his gripe. He became, instead, a powerful everyman, effortlessly wielding free social media tools to battle a corporate behemoth. Goliath had been felled by a YouTube David.
A thousand blog posts and articles waxed poetic about the damage suffered by the brand, but did United pay the price? If so, it is hard to see. If you evaluate United's stock following this PR crisis, you find that in the six months following the release of Carroll's video, the company's stock outperformed competitors' by more than 100%.

Over the years, I have spoken to dozens of audiences and stood in front of thousands of people and asked a simple question:

As a result of seeing the "United Breaks Guitar" video (and not because of your own personal experiences), have you ever opted for a more expensive or less convenient itinerary to avoid flying United?
Not one person has yet fessed up to altering their purchase behaviors as a result of seeing the video. You're not surprised, are you? After all, you saw the video, and you did not change your airline purchasing habits, either. In the end, we all buy airfare the same way, choosing whichever carrier offers the route from Point A to Point B that is cheapest, flies at the right time, is easiest, and provides the right loyalty miles. If you hate and avoid United, it is because of your own experiences and not because of a musician's YouTube video.

Does this mean United's PR crisis this week is meaningless? No, because while (virtually) no one will change their flying habits...

Yes, It Will Raise United's Costs

Even if not one person changes their airfare purchase behaviors, this event will still be costly to United. Those who work in crisis or reputation management know that it takes very little for a large corporation to ring up a seven-figure tab responding to, managing and combatting a serious PR crisis.

This week, at United Airlines:
  • Senior leaders earning hundreds or even thousands of dollars per hour have shifted attention from whatever revenue- or business-generating tasks they intended to work on to address this PR issue, approve statements, meet the press and collaborate with employees.
  • PR professionals and agencies are racking up hundreds of hours (and hundreds of thousands of dollars of billable hours) to assist the brand.
  • Lawyers are adding more hours and more thousands of dollars to consider legal risks, options, and offers.
  • Employees at all levels are losing productivity reading communications from leaders, being instructed what to do if challenged, watching the videos, reading articles, and discussing the incident. (They're also responding to friends in social media, raising the risk of expanding and multiplying the scope of the PR issue and the associated costs.)
  • Social media teams are dealing with angry customers, doing their best to handle a situation but having little authority to do much more than explain and apologize. It's possible United has had to add to staff temporarily, calling on social media vendors to help their teams manage a rise in tweets, posts, and comments.
  • And finally, marketing leaders are very likely altering their plans. Campaigns that are running may be pulled temporarily. Planned ads may be being reassessed and edited. It's possible United's marketers are canceling ad buys in the short term and raising budgets in the long-term to change the conversation about the airline.

All of this means that thousands of employees at United and its agencies are running up a bill that can easily top seven figures. In fact, if every one of United's 86,000 employees just lost an average of just a half hour of productivity, that likely cost the company more than $2,000,000. And for what?

To read the conclusion of my post and why customer experience management could have helped the brand avoid this issue, please visit my post on the Gartner blog.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Yet Another Wake-Up Call: Marketing, Growth, and Customer Experience

Source: Unsplash, Daria Nepriakhina
My peer, Jake Sorofman, recently wrote a smart blog post about the latest wake-up call for CMOs. It seems chief marketing officers have needed a lot of these arousing calls in recent decades--digital was said to be a wake-up call, and so was the recession, sustainability, and social media. If you're weary of the constant wake-up calls, I wish to offer a solution: Put your focus where it belongs--on the customer--and you will never again have to fear a rude awakening.

The latest career-threatening forewarning was the announcement by Coke that it would no longer have a global CMO (hot on the heels of Unilever and Vodaphone axing their global CMO roles). In place of the CMO, the leader of Coca-Cola's marketing department will report alongside customer and commercial leadership strategy into a new position--the chief growth officer.

MarketingWeek notes Coke is not an outlier--brands such as "Colgate-Palmolive, Coty, Mondel─ôz or Tyson Foods have vocally installed chief growth officers to 'accelerate growth efforts' or to 'bring focus and growth to our platforms.'" Add to this that CMO tenure is again downtrending for the first time in a decade and CMO tenure is the shortest of any in the C-suite, and you have to wonder how anyone in marketing gets any sleep with all these wake-up calls demanding attention.

The question I have to ask is if this is really an issue of labels and titles. Does changing the letter between the "C" and the "O" from "M" to "G" address the problems brands are facing? Is it news to marketers that they were held responsible for growth? As Jake ends his blog post, "Call it whatever you’d like. To me, it’s just a CMO by another name."

Aside from the focus on titles and labels, there is a reason to worry about this fixation on growth: Because it is not a lever the company has to pull. No one can push the "growth" button. Growth is a dependent variable. A brand doesn't create growth--it creates changes that can lead to growth. As such, this obsession with "growth" in the C-suite could, I fear, lead brands further down the path of obsessing about short-term outcomes rather than long-term brand health.

Moreover, growth is not the job of one part of an organization. Naming a chief growth officer makes about as much sense as calling someone the chief profit officer. Both growth and profitability are not the accountability of one person or one part of the organization but is the outcome of collaborative efforts across the enterprise; in fact, I'd suggest companies already have a chief growth officer--the CEO. If the CEO isn't responsible for producing growth of the top and bottom lines, exactly what is he or she doing?

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Customer Experience, Innovation and the Slow Death of Famed Brands

Source: JMV on Flickr;
https://www.flickr.com/photos/jmv/8069763934
This week, Sears reported that it has "substantial doubt" about its ability to stay in business unless it can borrow more and tap cash from more of its assets. The retailer has been a bricks-and-mortar cautionary tale for so many years, you can be excused if you thought this was old news. In fact, the brand's woes have been so substantial for so long, it can be easy to forget what a powerhouse Sears once was--it helped to create the suburban shopping mall boom in the 1950s, and 60 years later, the retailer is at risk of driving a stake into the heart of those same malls.

Now is perhaps a good time to look back and consider how Sears' struggles are similar to those of other famed brands that failed, such as Borders, Kodak and Circuit City. We can also look at those competitive brands that have, if not flourished, at least survived, such as Barnes & Noble, Fujifilm, and Best Buy.

Simply put, many brands have been and continue to be too confident in their existing brand strength and business models. This confidence causes them to focus on short-term measures rather than leading indicators of success; it encourages them to believe their past history of significant customer loyalty means they do not need to rapidly evolve their customer experience for new customer expectations; and it obscures the necessity to embrace risk and innovate for tomorrow's customer needs. This is why 50% of the Fortune 500 from 1999 has disappeared from the list and why some forecast that 40% of today's Fortune 500 companies will no longer exist in 10 years.

The discipline of customer experience (CX), when done properly, solves these problems. It forces leaders to commit to leading indicators of success, such as customer satisfaction, loyalty and brand advocacy, and not just quarterly financial results. CX also demands that brands continually relearn customers' evolving needs and resolve problems to deliver on those needs across the entire customer journey. And lastly, customer experience is an effective driver of innovation, helping to identify and prioritize those technologies that will satisfy expectations tomorrow. Looking at three companies that failed and three competitors that remain in business illustrates the power of CX.

To read more on how customer experience helped Barnes & Noble, Fujifilm and Best Buy while undermining Borders, Kodak and Circuit City, please continue reading this post on my free Gartner blog.