Shep Hyken's Customer Service Blog

United Airlines Computer Outage Is Customer Service Crisis Case Study

Last week United Airlines had a computer outage that lasted two and a half hours and caused 200 flight delays and six cancellations. Keep in mind, this wasn’t a single unhappy customer complaining to a gate agent at the airport. This situation involved thousands of people who were inconvenienced. I would describe a two plus hour delayed flight as a Moment of Misery™.

There were thousands of angry passengers. Yet, problems like this are bound to happen at some point; just last year it happened with Delta and Southwest. And it may not be a computer glitch, but a weather problem that causes airline delays. Yet every cloud has a silver lining, and in this instance it’s a mini-case study on how to handle a customer service crisis.

I can’t speak to what happened at the airport when passengers approached gate agents for help, or what happened on the phone lines as passengers tried to reach a customer service representative. I’m sure there were long lines and hold times. The individual interactions turned out either good or bad because of the individual employees’ attitudes and how well they have been trained to handle such situations. But, what I can speak to is the general response that United Airlines made, and how it was a perfect example of what to do in a crisis situation.

I teach a five step process to deal with a complaining customer, and for those who follow my work, this is a short review:

  1. Acknowledge the problem.
  2. Apologize for the problem.
  3. Fix the problem – or discuss how it will be fixed.
  4. Do it with the right attitude – not just being nice, but acting accountable.
  5. Doing all of this with a sense of urgency.

Well, the same way you deal with individual customers is also the way you deal with a customer service crisis that impacts thousands of customers.

First, United acknowledged and apologized for the inconvenience. That’s steps one and two. They responded to media inquiries and tweeted out to all of their followers: A ground stop is in place for domestic flights due to an IT issue. We’re working on a resolution. We apologize for the inconvenience.

Then they fixed it, accomplishing step three.

Step four was that they accepted responsibility. Maddie King, a spokesperson for United, met with the press and told them they were working to fix the problem. No excuses. In other words, United was owning the problem.

Finally, there was a sense of urgency behind all of this. It took just two and a half hours to fix the problem. They worked hard and fast. Urgency is key to restoring confidence.

So, be it an individual complaining or a major customer service crisis effecting thousands of customers, consider the five step process that not only fixes what is broken, but potentially restores the customer’s confidence. And, done well it may restore the customer’s confidence to a level higher than if the problem had never happened at all.

Shep Hyken is a customer service expert, keynote speaker and New York Times bestselling business author. For information contact or www.hyken.com. For information on The Customer Focus™ customer service training programs go to www.thecustomerfocus.com. Follow on Twitter: @Hyken

(Copyright © MMXVII, Shep Hyken)

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  1. Thank you, Shep, for such a great example….and for reaffirming the way method I have been using as a customer service representative/supervisor. One may not be able to solve every customer’s problem, but one can only try and make a problem a bit easier to accept.

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