If you were following the news recently, you probably heard some of the customer horror stories coming from United Airlines. First, there were the two young female passengers who were not allowed to board a flight because they were wearing leggings. Second, there was the doctor who was physically removed from a flight and bloodied in the process. Apparently, the removal of the doctor happened because the airline needed to bump four passengers in order to fly some crew members to Louisville. Both of these stories have some nuances to them I am sure, but there is no avoiding the issue that bothers me most about United as a company: both of these incidents reflect a solid tone-deafness to common sense customer service. Both look horrible from a PR perspective; one is sexism and the other is assault. Interactions like these get plastered all over social media and no amount of damage control can counter-act the horrible message they send to customers and prospective customers. Will United continue as a profitable business generating equity for shareholders? Probably. But at what cost to those profits? At what cost to their reputation? What about common decency and the way we are supposed to treat others? If the truth be told, these stories actually were not shocking to me, as I fly quite a bit and many of my colleagues do as well. Our experiences with United range from consistently rude employees to outright harassment. As a company, we have consciously avoided United Airlines (and the former Continental Airlines) for a few years now.
In order to avoid bad customer service decision making, an organization has to recognize the issues that create an atmosphere of utter tone-deafness. My experience with tone-deaf companies is that there are a number of customer service employees who are out-right hostile towards their customers. They appear to not like their jobs. They are possibly over-worked, under-paid, and either given too little power to make decisions or possibly too much. Think about the gate agent or manager who made the decision to stop offering travel vouchers and a hotel stay before the doctor was removed. They started at $400 and a hotel, but there were no takers so they increased it to $800 and a hotel stay. There were still no takers, so rather than increase the offer they randomly selected four passengers to be removed. One has to ask, why did they stop increasing the offer? The result of the fallout from all of this has turned into an out of court settlement that must be much more expensive than a travel voucher. But another question remains; why did they even board passengers if they knew they had over-sold it. If they had bumped people in the gate, whether those people liked it or not, United could have kept them from getting on the plane and likely defused the situation in a more humane manner. But furthermore, one might ask why airlines over-sell flights in the first place. Why is that legal? You shouldn’t be able to sell something you don’t have as a product. That entire concept to me is a catalyst for corporate cultural problems. However, let’s be clear this situation wasn’t even about overbooking, this was an issue where they needed to fly crew to the destination airport to run another flight, yet it is being framed in the context of overbooking which has been a persistent problem for customers for a few years now. If we try and deconstruct the issue of calling the police to physically remove a passenger that did not want to voluntarily give up their seat, what we have in the end are employees who are angry, frustrated and willing to take those frustrations out on their customers. I think companies like this have a problem when their employees do not believe in their product. They don’t care about providing a good customer experience because the message from corporate is to make as much money at whatever cost. This issue to me is the key behind developing poor corporate culture and, for United, that issue will not be easily fixed considering the size of the company.
Our corporate culture is one that is defined by a sense of day-to-day pride in what we do — an interest in our customers succeeding and the science they are tackling every day. We want our customers to succeed, and we want them to be happy with our products.
Blue Marble is a much different company than United. We’re a small company of technology experts located mostly in central Maine. Although we have remote employees across the country, the way we approach our customers has more to do with what it means to live and work in Maine than it does with working for a software company. But this runs deeper than the face of it. Our corporate culture is one that is defined by a sense of day-to-day pride in what we do — an interest in our customers succeeding and the science they are tackling every day. We want our customers to succeed, and we want them to be happy with our products. We like helping them solve their challenges. Yes, we have rules about how we sell our software. We have rules about how we license it. But if you have been a customer of Blue Marble or Global Mapper for a while you know that our rules evolve over time and that we really try to listen to every customer. It can be challenging to satisfy the varied perspectives of some of our customers: the sole-proprietor surveyor who has been running his business on his own for thirty years on a tight budget versus the lead software procurement person for a multi-national corporation, or the remote sensing GIS government professional for an Africa-based agency. We strive to meet the needs of a diverse, global set of customers every day. Our global audience is where we are similar to United, but that is where it ends. The difference starts with caring about our reputation.
I think there are two keys to being successful at that. The first are the products we sell. Making quality products that solve a problem (at least for business software) is key. But taking pride in the product and standing behind it, as cheesy as it sounds, is essential. Secondly, empowering the people who support our customers to do quality work and to feel ownership in it. I will be the first to admit that this has been something I have had to learn how to do over the years. We work at it every day. I have surrounded myself with a solid management team, but we have also worked together to hire and promote good, smart people who actually want you (our customer) to succeed. If new hires do not buy into that, they don’t stick around. We don’t force it on them, however, we try to build that culture. It takes time. It takes practice. It takes a lot of practice actually. It takes pride as well. But it also means we can’t be tone-deaf. We listen to our employees and we listen to our customers.
All of us at Blue Marble want to make sure we’re doing everything we can to meet your needs so if you have a concern please email us at feedback (link to firstname.lastname@example.org). We will be sure to respond. Thank you for being our customer.
Patrick Cunningham is the President of Blue Marble Geographics. He has two decades of experience in software development, marketing, sales, consulting, and project management. Under his leadership, Blue Marble has become the world leader in coordinate conversion software (the Geographic Calculator) and low cost GIS software with the 2011 acquisition of Global Mapper. Cunningham is Chair of the Maine GIS Users Group, a state appointed member of the Maine Geolibrary Board, a member of the NEURISA board, a GISP and holds a masters in sociology from the University of New Hampshire.