Are Banks Like United Airlines?

Learning from United's Failure - Customer Engagement

We can all agree that the events of Dr. David Dao being forcibly dragged off a United flight were horrific on many levels.  In a room full of bankers last week we started off the conversation with two questions – What other domestic airlines could this occur on, and could something similar happen at your bank? The answers to each question proved to be instructive and could present a refined roadmap for your institution. If you are looking to have an active discussion with your bank employees to reinforce your culture, then this is a great place to start.


What Domestic Airlines Could This Happen On? 


United Failure - Customer Service


Most bankers universally agreed that the Dr. Dao event would never happen on Southwest. Most also agreed that it would not happen on Jet Blue or Virgin. However, after those names, the majority felt that the event could occur on any other given carrier and many bankers had stories of similar customer service issues. To be clear about the incident, the United gate agent had to open up space, asked for volunteers and then had to ask a passenger to exit. The passenger refused, the gate agent, according to all accounts, followed procedure of both United and the Department of Transportation and summoned law enforcement from the Chicago Airport Authority.  At this point, things went south, and all that we know for sure is that the Chicago Airport Authority, by their own admission, did not follow procedure. Let’s just stipulate that at this point, this situation was a customer service and ethical tragedy. 


Could This Happen At Your Bank? When we asked a group of fellow bankers, the answer was a strong “no” by almost every bank. However, despite the confidence, we are not so sure if this is true. We think it could happen at most banks. Like most banks, at CenterState we pride ourselves on our customer service but could it happen here? Let’s hope not, but maybe. We think a little less after this article.


What Protects Your Bank


Let us stipulate for the sake of this discussion that an event like Dr. Dao would not happen at your bank as you have many carrying employees that are clear on your culture that would have stepped in. But, what happens if you grew your bank tenfold, so some of those employees were not in daily contact with your senior management team and steeped in your bank’s culture? CenterState, despite having a strong culture, is now an aggregation of many banks and many new employees. While we make great effort to spread that culture, we also try hard to ensure that every employee follows our policy and procedures. Unfortunately, there are many places where our policies and procedures come into conflict with our goals to deliver the best customer service possible. 


Would your employees attempt to follow the policies and procedures that you laid out or would they be flexible?


Just take a simple example of sending a wire out that the customer has requested but it has less than perfect authorization. That line employee and their management is now placed in a dilemma  - hold the wire and risk the ire of the customer until proper authorization is had or release the wire and risk fraud.


Here is an even simpler test – send a mystery shopper that is a customer to your branch five minutes after they close and lock the doors. Have them knock on the window and plead for a transaction. We have tried it at a variety of banks and in more than 85% of the cases, we get a head shake or a shoulder shrug. Test your bank and see what happens (and let us know).


Almost every banker has been on both sides of these equations, and many have ended up upsetting either their bank or their customer.


Solving The Problem


In hindsight, we can all see United’s shortcomings and how they could have solved the problem. This is a good question to ask your employees – how would they have solved the problem? Most bankers agree that United either should not have let the customer on in the first place and/or offered more money to the other passengers until someone volunteers. Like every catastrophe, there is never one problem as a root cause; it is always a series of issues that compound to form the perfect storm. 


There are a hundred of other solutions, but most were not available either because of policy or because of the lack of creativity and compassion for the customer. United didn’t know until the last minute that it needed to transport its employees to another airport so it could staff another flight. Sure, there should have been a better system in place to handle this contingency such as getting more notice or flying the employees on a privately chartered airline, but none of that was in policy or designed into the system. Could any of your employees have authorized the use of a private plane to prevent the issue? It would have been ethically, morally and economically much better.


Maybe United should not have oversold its flight, but then customers yell already about change fees and the lack of flexibility. More non-refundable tickets are one way to go, but passengers are not ready to sign off on that. United could have also offered more money to entice other volunteers, but it hit its limit per policy. This is a policy that has worked in the past about 98% of the time. Policies always work until they don’t. Think of all the bank policies we have that limits what we can do for the customer.


United already trains to be customer service friendly, but unfortunately, it is not at the core of their culture. This is why every banker agreed that this incident wouldn’t have happened on Southwest.


United’s (And Many Bank’s) Real Problem


Banks, like most corporations in America, are company-centric first and then train on how to be customer service oriented. Great customer service companies put the customer first in everything they do. The employees of Nordstrom, Zappos, Ritz-Carlton or Chick fil would have found a dozen of other ways to solve the problem without hurting the customer experience. Our bet is that the staff would have banded together and come up out of pocket above policy guidelines, at their own expense, to further entice a passenger to leave.


This brings up another shortcoming of United that banks are also exposed to – empowered employees working with clear policies and procedures. Some organizations have what is called “Red Stripe” policies. These are part of the policy that cannot be violated for any reason. Where safety is concerned and where the dollar limit of risk is too large are the most obvious areas for Red Stripe policy. In these organizations, every employee must be clear, and many are tested on what these Red Stripe policies are. Other than that, it is taught that blindly following non-Red Stripe policy can lead to trouble. Where the well-being of the employee or customer is at stake, employees should be empowered, and trained, on how to solve problems.  This is why the Ritz showcases where employees broke procedures to please a customer so that the behavior gets normalized.


Had United trained to this customer-centric standard, it would have taken that gate agent about ten seconds of thought to know that they need to offer more money, despite the policy, to get another passenger to volunteer to give up their seat.


Putting This Into Action


As you build your bank’s team, take this indelible lesson from United. Use this incident as a mirror to see how your bank can not only create a more customer-focused organization but to proactively review policy and policy structure in order to design a better system. Giving your employees more flexibility and more drive to deliver a superior customer experience will ensure that as your bank grows, incidences like Dr. Dao will never happen. Do this, and your bank is almost assured high-flying success.