United Got the Wrong Answer Because They Were Asking the Wrong Question

Do you agree with the maxim “the customer is always right”?

It’s the cornerstone of the American customer service philosophy, and American customer service is pretty darn good by global standards. Not the best, but pretty good.

But I don’t agree with that maxim for two reasons: It’s not true (which makes it bullshit), and it’s not important (which makes it unhelpful).

It’s not true because … well, you know it’s not true. Sometimes the customer is abusive or wildly unrealistic or drunk or a bigot. I’ve seen all that and more. Telling people to grit their teeth and say the customer is “right” is a brain-dead approach to delivering good service.

It’s not important because it presupposes an argument, a debate between an organization and a customer. How did that happen? And if it does happen (it can), why are you focused on who’s going to win?

Remember that if the customer is right, somebody has to be wrong, and that somebody is the person delivering the service. If that person is a member of your team, your policy just made them wrong, and that whole way of thinking is pointless. And it will cost you.

Which brings me to United Airlines and this week’s farcical removal of a passenger with the misfortune of being on a United Airlines flight. Listening to people debate the intricacies of whether or not United had the legal right to remove the passenger by force, I can’t help but think that United’s mental model of “service” is based on the “right-wrong” paradigm.

“We are right. Our lawyers can prove it.”

United totally missed the point. But I’m not surprised. They’re operating on the right-wrong paradigm of customer service, and when the stakes get too high, and when the pressure is on, the unsustainable façade of “the customer is always right” comes crashing down. The smiling clown face spins around to the angry clown face, and you, the customer, are wrong. And by the way, we’re within our rights to hurt you, sir.


United came to the wrong answer because they’re asking the wrong question. They’re asking who’s right and who’s wrong, when they should be asking, “How can we best serve everyone’s interests in this situation?”

One absolutely critical component to customer service, especially in a moment of tension or crisis, is power in the hands of people on the front line of service to do what they believe will serve those interests.

Yes, that requires faith in their judgments and fewer hard and fast rules. I can tell you from 20 years of experience in managing (and delivering) customer service, that method works. If you’ve done a decent job of hiring and training people for those roles and you reinforce that it really is in their power to take care of situations, they will come through. They won’t bankrupt you in the process either.

Doing customer service right isn’t that complicated. Finding an answer to the problem on United flight 3411 wasn’t really all that hard.

But if you’re asking the wrong question, you’re never going to find it.

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