by Rod Collins

The recent outrage over the violent removal of a boarded paying customer to make room for a commuting employee clearly caught United Airlines by surprise. As the facts of this troubling situation unfolded, it appears that the airline’s customer service representatives and its executives were initially convinced that the only real problem that happened during the boarding process of Flight 3411 was a passenger’s refusal to accept the airline’s re-accommodation policy. Within 24 hours of the incident, United’s CEO praised his employees in an internal memo for their adherence to company policy, reinforcing his commitment to stand behind them in their proper handling of a “belligerent” customer who refused to give up his seat in deference to corporate wishes. It appears from the memo that the CEO was certain the airline did everything right and that the passenger did everything wrong.

However, in the subsequent 24 hours, that certainty was shaken when a social media firestorm and a significant drop in United’s stock price brought a healthy sense of reality to the airline’s executive suite. The CEO began rapidly walking back his initial comments and shifting into full damage control mode when he realized, as far as the public was concerned, the passenger did nothing wrong and United did nothing right. How could United have gotten this so wrong, especially when you consider that this wasn’t the first time that United’s blind adherence to a bureaucratic policy created a social media firestorm that tarnished their brand. Had the late Yogi Berra been a passenger on this infamous flight, he might have commented, “See I told you, it’s déjà vu all over again.”  

“They’re Throwing Guitars Out There!”

In the summer of 2008, Dave Carroll and his band were traveling on United Airlines from Halifax, Nova Scotia to Omaha, Nebraska, where they were scheduled to perform. While they were sitting at the gate on their connecting flight at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, Dave heard someone behind him exclaim, “They’re throwing guitars out there!” Dave’s eyes widened in horror as he looked out the window just in time to see his $3,500 Taylor guitar sail through the air and crash to the ground. When he arrived at the baggage claim in Omaha, he confirmed his worse fears: The neck on his beloved six-string was split in two.

Fortunately for Dave and the band, none of their other instruments were damaged and they were able to fulfill their concert obligations. Once things settled down after the hectic activity of the setups, rehearsals, and performances, Dave placed a call to United to register his claim with the airline for the expensive repair of his guitar. He was stunned when the customer service representative told him that there was nothing that the airline could do to help him and that the repair was his responsibility. According to United’s policy, all claims for damages must be filed within twenty-four hours, and Dave had missed the deadline. Dave protested that he had actually witnessed the irresponsible handling of his precious cargo and it was wrong for United to shirk its responsibility to its paying passengers by hiding behind a rigid policy. Despite his continued attempts over the next nine months, nobody up the chain of command would budge. The policy was quite clear, and it was evident that policy compliance was a prime value at United.

A Viral Solution

Realizing that he was at the end of the line with United’s brass, Dave took a different tack and posted a YouTube video of him and his band playing an original song entitled “United Breaks Guitars.” On its first day, the video received 150,000 hits. By day three, it had gone viral with more than 500,000 hits and caught the attention of United’s executives. The airline had a change of heart and called Dave to let him know that it might be willing to make an exception to its policy. United also asked if Dave might consider taking down the video. Dave responded that there was no way he was removing what had suddenly become his best marketing tool. Besides, he no longer needed to repair his guitar because Bob Taylor, the owner of Taylor Guitars, was so pleased with the positive publicity that he was receiving from the video that he gave Dave two replacement guitars to express his gratitude.

As of today, the original video has been viewed over 17 million times. Dave’s meteoric rise at the expense of what was once known as the “Friendly Skies” continued with the 2012 publication of his book on the power of one voice in the new world of social media. If there’s one airline that should have known from direct experience the power of social media, it’s clearly United Airlines.

The Power of One Voice in a Hyper-Connected World

When we heard Dave Carroll’s voice in protest against his mistreatment by United, it was a light-hearted parody spoofing the mindlessness of rigid bureaucratic policies that all too often defy human decency. We laughed along with Carroll and admired the creativeness with which this David slew Goliath. We all relished the newfound power that one voice could muster thanks to the new tools of social media. While we were irritated at United’s failure to take responsibility for its own actions, Carroll’s canniness and humor shaped the lasting memory of this escapade. In the end, it was Dave Carroll’s wit that we remember, and that was probably a good thing for United.

Unfortunately, the recent déjà vu incident is not likely to end as well for the airline. That’s because when we heard David Dao’s voice, we were shocked by the shrieks of anguish from the pain of a broken nose. As fellow passengers witnessed mindless bureaucratic policies morph into mindful violence, they sensed in the moment that a line had been crossed, and immediately took to social media to share with the world how Goliath had treated this David. This was no laughing matter; this was a distressing exhibition of violence by a company against a customer whose only infraction was to be firm on his right to remain in the seat that he had paid for. The video of Dao’s dragging has been viewed by over 550 million people who share a common reaction: outrage. Although United has been forced by a public outcry to take full responsibility for its actions, the airline’s callous initial response is likely to shape the lasting memory of this unfortunate scrape. In the end, it will be David Dao’s screams that we will remember, and that is not a good thing for United.

The Purpose of a Business

As United works to repair its tarnished brand, they might keep in mind a guiding principle that today’s best businesses take very seriously: In a hyper-connected world, everyone in an organization should always remember they work for the customers, not the bosses. Companies never go out of business because they lose their bosses. They only disappear when they lose their customers. That’s why the leaders of customer-centric companies wisely understand the primary purpose of a business is not about creating shareholder wealth; it’s about creating customer value. These vanguard leaders appreciate that shareholder wealth is the reward that customers provide when the true purpose of a business is delivered.

Unfortunately, what happened on Flight 3411—giving corporate policy priority over human decency—could have happened on almost any other airline as well as with many other transactional businesses. Far too many companies see business as a collection of financial transactions, and consequently, they don’t attach any real value to their customers because consumers are ultimately viewed as market mechanisms for converting products into profits. When the purpose of a business is to maximize shareholder wealth, it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that dragging a paying customer from his seat is a sensible action when the airline needs to make room for a flight crew member who is critical for sustaining the profitability of another flight.

A customer-centric company would never see the forced removal of a paying customer as a sensible action. When the purpose of a business is to create customer value, business leaders are more focused on the customer experience than the customer transaction, and empower their employees to give priority to human decency over corporate policy. That’s what happened when a Zappos customer couldn’t find the time to stop by a UPS office to return multiple pairs of shoes when her mother suddenly passed away. Rather than stand on policy, the shoe retailer’s customer service reps arranged to send a UPS truck to a convenient place of the customer’s choosing. But that wasn’t all. The day following the pickup, the Zappos reps delivered a bouquet of flowers to comfort their valued customer in this difficult time in her life. That’s human decency in action!

The ultimate irony—and perhaps the most important lesson that every company should learn from United’s actions—is that policies that are myopically designed to protect profitability can be far more costly than the expenses saved. In a hyper-connected world, the wise business leader understands that human decency, not bureaucratic policies, drives profitability, especially when the purpose of a business is to create customer value.

This article was originally published in the Huffington Post.