Whether you’re in first class or coach, it doesn’t matter when an airline makes an almighty screw-up. Everyone hears about it and everyone is usually equally appalled.

Then there’s the way airlines treat your luggage – that’s a real leveler there. It doesn’t matter how much you paid for your ticket, the baggage handlers will still try to slam-dunk your suitcase into the luggage hold.

Over the past couple of months, we’ve heard a lot more stories about paying passengers being treated shabbily by the airlines.

Just because you paid for your ticket, taken your seat and fastened your seatbelt – it still doesn’t guarantee that you won’t be dragged off the plane to make room for someone else. Dr. David Dao’s confidential settlement was agreed upon in record time, after he was knocked unconscious and dragged off a United flight.

I’m not saying that being a flight attendant is an easy job. You have to keep smiling and be always helpful, even when your passengers don’t necessarily have the same standard of manners that you do.

The thing to remember with airlines – just like with law firms – is that 99 percent of the time, everyone is just trying to get on with their job.

It’s the one percent who will catch you out.

Getting People Talking

What gets people talking? In the social media age, what gets airline passengers talking about their experience?

No one bothers sharing a story about everything going exactly as expected. It’s the exception – the one percent situations – that get people talking.

In January, I wrote about Ishmael, a patient young employee at Target whose story about his considerate service went viral. We get so used to crappy service that when someone goes above and beyond to help a customer, it gets us talking.

The same is true for when normally crappy service is interrupted by downright dreadful service.

My Own Airline Experience

I wrote about my own experience with US Airways when they made me so mad that I never wanted to fly with them again. Perhaps because I wasn’t physically assaulted, my story didn’t go viral.

Every airline screws it up sometimes, but I’ve also seen stories where they really get it right by doing so much more than anyone expected.

Like the 2015 story about Peggy Uhle and Southwest doing everything they could to help her after her son suffered a head injury. Or the 2016 story about an Etihad pilot who turned a flight around so that an elderly couple could rush to the bedside of their dying grandson.

So, how do we ensure that our clients only have great experiences to share with others? We can certainly learn a lesson or two from United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz.

New Policies

In the aftermath of the Dao incident with United Airlines, it was evident that Munoz would have to take drastic action to regain control of the narrative. The embattled CEO drew up new guidelines for airline employees, defining thick, bright red lines that were absolutely not to be crossed.

One new policy will “make sure crews traveling on our aircraft are booked at least 60 minutes prior to departure. This ensures situations like Flight 3411 never happen again.”

In a classic case of “Why wasn’t that your policy in the first place?”, United will now ensure that “no must ride crew member can displace a customer who has boarded an aircraft.”

Dao’s incident prompted Delta Airlines to increase their compensation to displaced passengers. The cap on their maximum payout has been increased from $1,350 to $9,950. I would hope that by offering nearly 10 grand, Delta would find it easier to convince passengers to delay their journey.

Back To Law Firms

So, how do we learn from the airlines’ mistakes and translate that into a strategy for our law firms? Simple – we copy and tweak their two key responses as they relate to our law practices.

  1. You need clearly defined, thick and bright red lines that your employees must not cross. Ever.

Think about the worst possible circumstances and situations, the one percent events that you hope will never happen. What rules can you put in place to virtually eliminate them happening at all?

  1. Have clear policies for remedying a one percent situation.

When the worst does happen, what are you going to do about it?

Are you going to have a clear policy of, “If X happens, we will do Y?”

Or, will you empower someone in your office to step in with your authority and rectify the situation?

Having worked out your new red-line policies and how to remedy any one percent problems, you’re left with a new opportunity. That opportunity is getting people discussing the good news stories about your law firm.

Knowing that your employees are unlikely to cross your red lines, you can focus on encouraging them to go above and beyond, just like Ishmael, and get your clients talking about your law firm for all the right reasons.


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