Too Big To Care

More bad publicity for the folks at United Airlines over the weekend.  This time, a mechanical issue in-flight resulted in a plane full of passengers having to spend the night in a military barracks.  Obviously there was no issue with the need to land the plane – who wants to be 6 miles up with a mechanical issue?  But what happened next is yet another black eye on United’s record of customer care.

English: United Airlines Boeing B747-400 at Be...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What company needs this headline:

Hundreds Of United Airlines Customers ‘Abandoned’ In Remote Canadian Barracks Without Heat, Little Food

I won’t reiterate the list of stories that portray United as a company that hates its customers and instead I want us to have a think about a bigger question.  Only four airlines—United, American, Southwest and Delta—now control 85% of domestic air travel due to mergers and acquisitions. I think we’ve all seen higher fares and worse customer service pretty much across the board. According to the Department of Transportation, airline-related complaints increased by 26% in 2014.  This same sort of routine – a business sector becoming more consolidated and customer service declining while prices rise – has played out elsewhere.  Banking, cable TV and broadband providers and insurance are just a few areas where we’ve all seen this play out.

My thinking is this.  Companies become too focused on improving systems without focusing on how those improvements affect customers.  United, for example, may focus on improving financial performance by increasing baggage and other fees while angering their customers.  Maybe their attitude is “If everyone does it, what choice will the customers have anyway?” and that has, for the most part, been true.  What’s also true, however, that the many of the quality metrics – are declining along with their costs.

Smart companies improve the bottom line but not at the customers’ expense.  They maintain the small company mentality even as they become quite large.  Customer satisfaction is always a front and center metric, and product improvements are made to benefit the customer, not always the bottom line.

All of which makes me wonder if “economies of scale” generated through dynamic growth can actually not mean “too big to care”.  Do you have any thinking on that?

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