Can You “Manufacture” Customer Service? Oh United!

Many of you must have seen the video of the United Airlines customer service fiasco, where a passenger was forcibly removed by the Chicago Police from the aircraft after being boarded. At the last moment, United required four seats for their own pilots who needed to get to the destination. So much for “flying the friendly skies”!

In manufacturing, factories are run under strict process controls and products are defined by exacting specifications. Those employed at a production facility will rigorously trained on these processes and specifications, at a minimum to the extent relevant to their own job. In well run factories, the employees will have a broader awareness of overall processes and specifications so that they know how their tasks fit into the bigger picture.

Manufacturing Services

Customer service usually involves interactions between employees and customers (ignoring for the moment the replacement of employees with machines). Since humans are involved, it is often mistakenly believed that process and specifications have little place in customer service unlike in manufacturing. Using the United brouhaha, I will reflect on the roles of process and judgment in delivering customer service.

For most front line customer service tasks, we employ people with limited ability who are also given minimal training before deployment. Low pay and high turnover in these positions makes this inevitable. The retail sector is a classic example, where turnover rates can surpass 100% annually.

Consider Walmart that employs over two million people! Given the diversity of employee backgrounds, low entry barriers, and high turnover, the challenge for any service organization becomes how to deliver a consistent experience to the customer across interactions with the customer. Literally, millions of interactions every day in the case of Walmart between their employees and customers.

One of the service outcomes, Walmart wishes to deliver is to “be friendly” to customers. Clearly, every employee would interpret this differently if left to his or her own judgment. This is where the training process and service specifications kick in to create a consistent service experience. At Walmart, “be friendly”, as every employee knows, is the “10 foot rule”. If the customer comes within 10 feet of you, make eye contact and smile. That’s it.

The 10 foot rule is simple, easy to understand, and requires minimal training of the army of employees. This is how you manufacture services and remove judgment from those who may not have the ability or the motivation to exercise it.

 Process versus Judgment in Service

The overwhelming majority of customer service encounters can be satisfactorily resolved by designing appropriate processes, defining tight specifications, and adequate training. As a result, most employees will not need to exercise their judgment, or if so, it will be relatively seldom. In such cases, the ability to call a supervisor should be immediately available.

In the United Airlines case, from what I have read, the check in desk staff were just following process. It is the process that is at fault if after boarding a passenger, they can be removed when enough volunteers do not come forward. Over time, I have noticed that the degrees of freedom given to the front line employees at the check in desks and gates have been severely constrained. While this delivers “on average” better level of service to customers, in exceptional circumstances, it fails. When left to judgment, one gets unfortunate outcomes such as my recent British Airways London-Lima flight where relatives of the crew were occupying seats 1D and 2K.

The managers designing the process should be held accountable for the United failure. Once a passenger is on board, unless it is a security risk, they should never be removed. Now it is for the airline to live with the consequences. And, from what I understand the destination was a 4- hour car journey from the origin at a 400 dollar cost. Someone should have made this call, but not the person at the gate as it is a judgment call. There were of course other errors in the process such as not making the criteria for selection of passengers to deplane visibly transparent to all.

The flight attendants were just following the process, which in this case meant they received instructions to remove the passenger. We do not expect them to exercise judgment in this domain. Their training and competence is limited to calling the security if the passenger refuses to comply.

Unlike gate staff and flight attendants, the job of a police office is dealing with “non-standard” interactions. They are expected to frequently exercise judgment to resolve idiosyncratic situations.  A police officer’s job, unlike a front line airline or retail employee, calls for competence that is defined as beyond simply following the process. They must be evaluated by the judgment they demonstrate in defusing situations not covered by process manuals. Once, there was no security risk from the passenger, the police officers should have walked off leaving the problem for the airline to resolve. The police job does not include guaranteeing profits from overbooking at airlines.

CEO: Judgment is all you have

For me, the largest failure was on the part of the CEO of United Airlines. To become a CEO, competence is the price of entry. It is assumed. What really matters is judgment. The only things that should appear in front of the CEO are what remains after all processes have failed in the company and idiosyncratic situations for which no process exists.

Clearly, Oscar Munoz is not personally responsible for the service failure. But he does own the responses to the media and employees from his office.  And, his first responses on both fronts showed a terrible lack of judgment.

My point is that what defines “competence” differs by job as does the relative mix between following the process and exercising judgment. Front line staff mostly follow process, CEO’s mostly exercise judgment, while police officers come somewhere in between. Competence for a CEO is not defined, unlike for front line staff, by how well you follow the process, but by the judgment you exercise.

Clearly, Oscar Munoz is not CEO material. Yes, he did have an appropriate response ultimately in the face of a public relations disaster and worldwide ridicule. But, his poor judgment had deleterious impact on the company’s image and employee morale. Now it is for the Board of United to exercise their judgment and replace him.

Warmly

Nirmalya


Magic Dust

I invite you to follow me on Twitter @ProfKumar and LinkedIn.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Interesting Nirmalya. Another perspective on the United Airlines debacle may involve looking at the logic of the contract as it pervades American society. Phillipe d’Iribarne in his analysis of American organisations emphasised the way American organisations function through adherence to the ‘rules of the contract’: respect for the chain of command and very well specified, quantifiable goals.
    In the case of United Airlines, what it may be interesting to ponder why / how the UA staff could stick so strictly to the process as it is laid out in the “contract of carriage” (and the wording here is also interesting). One interpretation is the strict adherence to the rules of the contract, as the guiding principle in American service organisations. In the airline industry, Reagan’s firing of air traffic controllers is a case in point of the contract’s importance in the American context. Other logics pervade the American context, but it seems to me that the logic of the contract is a powerful one, with its own limits as the example illustrates.

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