How to enrage and alienate your customers

Take an abundant, desirable, free resource and dangle it in front of them for hours without sharing, while hiding your reasons behind a mountain of illogical babble.

I’m sitting in the back of a United Airlines plane right now with a couple dozen other passengers. We’re crammed like sardines in a few Economy rows, while in front of us are 10 rows of empty “Economy Plus” seats. Either United drastically overestimated the demand for seat upgrades on this flight or they are deliberately trying to shift their seating toward premium spots.

Either way, it seem like a fantastic opportunity to make your customers happy, with a free upgrade to a nicer seat. Simply let people move around before the gate closes, and the plane would be balanced and happy. Better yet, surprise people at check-in with automatic upgrades. People would certainly appreciate and remember such nice treatment and be more likely to choose your airline in the future. They’d also have had a taste of Economy Plus benefits and know what they’re worth the next time.

Unfortunately, the policies in place prohibit that. I’ve heard reasons from the flight attendant ranging from “it would imbalance the plane” (what kind of bizarre balance do we have now?) to “it wouldn’t be fair to the people who paid for these seats” (would they fail to have them?) and “only gate agents can change seats” (Southwest passengers choose their own seats on every flight), but in the end the the result is that no one on board is authorized to change anyone’s seat, and we took off with an embarrassment of open seats in front of an angry crowd. There’s even only one person in the entire exit row (which the gate attendant denied existing when I tried to check for available seats), and I’m not really sure who would be in charge of opening the other door in case of emergency.

In the meantime, since they boarded the flight early and we sat for a while (including a delay while one man tried to pay for an upgrade, requiring assistance from both flight attendants), the entire back of the plane has been buzzing about the ridiculous situation and pestering the flight attendant, who clearly has no power to do anything but is scrambling to placate the mob by reciting all the reasons she can’t. Everyone is participating in a shared cathartic conversation about the ineptitudes of United Airlines. Except for me, as I’m busy writing this screed to post online (I may not be as persuasive as the United breaks guitars guy, but I do what I can). I wouldn’t be surprised if United loses dozens of customers over this single mismanaged flight.

My last United trip (note: my spell correction software just suggested “untenable” instead of “United” when I mistyped; I was tempted to keep it that way) was similarly outrageous. When checking in for the flight we were told for the first time that our seats were not guaranteed and we’d have to stand by the desk, watching a screen to see if we got on. That time I gave in to the extortion and upgraded to Economy Plus (which guaranteed seats), while watching dozens of people get bumped from the flight and delay their vacations, and I vowed to never fly the airline again as long as that behavior continued. United seems to have abandoned that policy, only to replace it with one just as ridiculous when I gave them a second chance.

I don’t mind if an airline–or any company–charges higher prices if that’s backed up by consistent, humane behavior. And I recognize that airlines are feeling pressure on their bottom lines and operate in an extremely regulated, bureaucratic industry. But this pattern of bait-and-switch penny pinching has spoiled United for me, and in the future I’ll pay premiums and inconvenience myself to fly other airlines, avoiding United whenever I can.

What lessons can be found here? First, be real with your policies. Give them wiggle room and empower your people to modify them on the fly. The saddest part of the whole situation to me was watching the poor flight attendant harrangued by the passengers when she had no authority to help. I love a tip from Tim Ferris, who authorizes his assistants to solve any customer’s problem, without consulting him, if it costs less than $100 to fix. Over time, he’s repeatedly raised that limit rather than lowering it.

Second, be transparent in your customer interactions. Don’t mix prices around hoping to squeeze a bit more money out of people. Just state clearly what you offer for what price.

Finally, when you have the chance to do something nice for people, especially when it doesn’t cost you anything, do it! Actively look for ways to be generous to your customers. They’ll remember it and be loyal to you for a long time.

UPDATE: The next flight was “oversold by 40”, which resulted in lots of frayed nerves and strict enforcement of carry-on restrictions, which slowed boarding to a crawl and irritated nearly everyone.

So rule 4 from this trip: Don’t promise what you can’t deliver.