Stop Saying Sorry — A note to United and other Airlines.

First of all, for what happened to the dragged off passenger, you’ll likely be saying “I’m Sorry” for a long time. What you probably haven’t realized, however, is that one of the main ingredients that lead to this might have been because you have been saying sorry, or some other form of apology, for way to long.

When I went to check in for my flight this morning, I got a notification that asked me if I would be willing to take a later flight with an offer of flight credits for an “inconvenience.” I know, it’s your way of apologizing for an over-sold flight and compensating me for my trouble.

But here’s what I know. Your policy of over-booking makes you lots of money. In addition, though I can’t really verify it, it likely makes my frequent flights a bit cheaper. Assuming that you would have to charge for un-utilized seats to maintain the profit margin. I get that. It’s how the whole thing works.

The problem is, in apologizing, you are creating an adversarial relationship between me and the people responsible for getting me on the plane (gate agents etc.). When they believe they are inconveniencing the customer, and just following policy, they begin to look at me as someone they must convince to do something I don’t want. Equally, when I hear or see the words inconvenience, we’re sorry, or we “have to find x amount of people” I begin to feel like you messed up, I can’t trust you, and that I might ultimately have no choice in the matter.

From a brain perspective, both the choice placed on me and on the employee are, by design, going to trigger a threat response. I’m protecting my turf and your employee is protecting theirs (they would hate to get fired for not following policy).

But, in the midst of all of this, there is huge opportunity to use this whole situation to trigger the reward response in both me and your employee from the moment you know about an over-sold situation. In fact, I think it is something I could look forward to and your employees could celebrate.

What if, when you learn of the oversold situation, your first correspondence with me was about an opportunity? About, how we have all helped create a cost-effective flying situation and, now that we have reached capacity, a few lucky people are going to have the opportunity to make a little money, maybe even more… Roll out the oversold for what it is, a benefit, potentially, to both parties. And the first person that has a bit of flexibility to make it to the counter wins.

Personally, I’ve made money on this. A few flights home on short weekends have earned me added vacations, free business development trips to see new clients, and even tickets for friends and family on special occasions. All of these were benefits that I was not considering when someone told me that I would be compensated for my imposition. All of them are opportunities for you to change the way we view our two person relationship.

The potential for this could be a huge change in the way both the passenger and your employees view your current policies. What if this was something that people looked forward to hearing? What if, in addition to your change in tone, you put everyone that voluntarily took a bump in a drawing for more free flights, flight status for frequent flyers, or other awards that make the incentive for volunteering something people want to be the first in line to receive?

The options are endless. But it is difficult to achieve if you don’t stop saying sorry and start letting your passengers be part of the solution. Trigger the parts of our brain that make us want to be a part of your success, knowing that it ultimately helps create our own, and you might find your customers want you to be successful as much as you do.

 

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