A few weeks ago I was speaking at a Customer Experience conference. Everyone was fired up and wanted to talk about the airlines!

“Those damn airlines…”

“What a lousy customer experience airlines provide!”

“Airlines are just the WORST at providing a great experience.”

“I hope nobody is here from the airline industry.”

When it was my turn to talk, I suggested something quite counter-intuitive.

Perhaps airlines don’t need to work on providing a great experience. Maybe they just don’t care. Maybe they don’t need to care…that much.

I mean, when you think about it. We travel huge distances on massive aircraft burning tremendous amounts of fuel, we get free drinks/snacks, and most people bring way too much luggage–all for relatively low fees.

Airline travel is stressful. I get it–I ‘m not discounting that. I travel with my wife and kids, a couple of booster seats, and enough luggage for a six-month trip to Europe on a three-day jaunt to Florida. But in over ten+ years and hundreds of flights, I have yet to have a customer experience that makes me shudder. Delta, United, Air Canada, American, Southwest, etc. They’ve all done a reasonably good job.

Yes, flights have been canceled. I’ve been inconvenienced. I’ve waited on hold for too long. I’ve landed at airports thousands of miles from my destination, and I’ve spent a LOT of time in airports waiting and waiting, but that’s about the extent of it. They ‘ve been 100% successful getting me from point A to point B with a few blips in between.

I mean, the airlines have never beaten me up. But for fun, let’s do a thought experiment and suppose they did. Imagine for a moment they decide to throw me a few right hooks, break my nose, and then drag me off the plane.

Would it hurt them? Could those actions bring down a company? Would customer service efforts that bad truly have a lasting impact?

Lucky for us, we don’t need to do a thought experiment because it happened. I’ve been considering those questions since United did beat up one of their passengers.

Think back to the Dr. David Dao incident a few months ago. So what’s happened since?

Here is what happened immediately after the sensational story unfolded.

  • The case with Dr. Dao was settled fairly quickly for an undisclosed amount (rumors say well more than $10M was paid out).
  • Countless groups polled individuals on social media and in real life, and they consistently heard the same feedback: “Of course this will make us think twice about flying United! Of course, we would fly on another airline, even if it means paying more for tickets! Of course, we would fly on another airline, even if it means adding a three-hour layover! United? Never again!”
  • And finally….Share prices rose about $6, adding $1.7 billion dollars to the valuation of United Airline stock.
    It seems that all the negative attention and all the promises from people to avoid United amounted to…wait for it… nothing.

In fact, the company was seen as being 10% more valuable less than a month after the incident! It seems for all the people that said they would never fly United again, many more people decided they would.

I think there are three simple takeaways that any company can draw from this incident (and please note, “It’s okay to beat and bloody your clients” isn’t one of them!)”

  1. Isolated negative incidents aren’t the end of the world (even when they’re highly publicized).
  2. Never trust what people say on surveys.
  3. You know what they say about publicity…

The flip side of those points is that it is incredibly important to consistently deliver service and quality that matches your customer’s expectations. If you’re an airline, this is a pretty low bar, and so long as you’re providing consistent experiences, your customers will always have an appropriate level of expectations.

We’re not all lucky enough to have customers who expect as little as airline passengers, but it’s up to us to understand what our customers expect and to ensure that we consistently meet or exceed that expectation.

It’s more harmful to provide a “WOW experience” to one customer while mildly underwhelming another two than it is to provide competent service to all three.

Now, of course, I think airlines could do better, but it’s also important to remember that there’s not much more they need to do unless we’re all prepared to pay more.

By the way, this nothingness-effect isn’t isolated to the United incident. Uber, Pepsi, VW, and others had similar PR nightmares this year which resulted in approximately nothing happening. People are still banking at Wells-Fargo, and thousands have taken Equifax up on the many promotional offers they’ve made since losing everyone’s private information to hackers.

Your Challenge For This Week: Consider the core promises you’re making in your sales and marketing efforts. Ask yourself honestly, how well are you meeting those claims and promises.

Remember, most customer service issues stem from simply over-promising and under-delivering. Loyalty and retention are the results of managing and minding the expectations gap–the distance between what the customer expects and what they actually get.

Let’s appreciate that $300 flight over the ocean for what it is, not what it’s not. We can celebrate what it “could be,” but you’re not going to swim or take a boat, and nobody’s going to beat you up….I don’t think.

P.S. This is something we talk about in much more depth in our new book, Dealing With Difficult Customers. Pre-order it now so you can start putting the concepts to work the day it ‘s released (which is later this month!)