American Airlines Fires Designer Who Reached Out To Disgruntled Customer

from the not-quite-connecting-with-fans dept

A few years back, I remember seeing a fascinating study that showed that how a company responds to a problem or a mistake is more important to customer loyalty than not making any mistakes at all. That is, customers felt more loyal to companies that screwed up, but handled it well, than companies that never screw up at all. If you think about this, it makes a fair amount of sense. At some point or another everyone screws up. Everyone makes a mistake. Customers recognize this. But if a company never makes a mistake, then customers may still wonder how they’ll be treated when that future mistake comes. However, if the mistake has been made, and the response was good, the customer is confident that future mistakes will be handled well also.

Of course, the converse situation is true as well. If a company screws up and then screws up the response as well, it causes tremendous harm to a brand — often in ways that cannot easily be redeemed (if at all). Brendan writes points us to a story of American Airlines seeming to go out of its way to respond poorly to a situation — after someone from the company had first responded well. It started with a blog post written by Dustin Curtis, complaining about the poor user interface design of American Airlines website (including a suggested redesign). He didn’t expect much of a response, but actually received a nice and detailed email from a user design person at American Airlines explaining why it was often tricky to good design at large companies, due to all of the different interests, but says that some good stuff is coming, even if it may take some time.

Now, that’s a good response. It’s human. It explains the situation without PR/marketing speak that a recipient would know was bogus. It is the type of response that makes someone feel good about American Airlines (mostly). So, how did AA respond?

It fired the guy.

Apparently, higher level folks at American Airlines didn’t like the fact that an employee was actually being open and honest with a customer, took the text from Dustin’s post (he hadn’t named the designer), searched through the email system, identified the guy… and fired him… and threatened to sue the guy if he spoke to Dustin again. As Dustin notes:

When I first learned about this, I was horrified. Mr. X is actually a good UX designer, and his email had me thinking there was hope for American Airlines. The guy clearly cared about his work and about the user experience at the company as a whole. But AA fired Mr. X because he cared. They fired him because he cared enough to reach out to a dissatisfied customer and help clear the company?s name in the best way he could.

The guy’s original response was an example of an excellent interaction with a disgruntled customer. It was honest. It responded to his concerns. It was real. It was human. It made Dustin actually reconsider his view of the company. Then, in firing the guy, American Airlines didn’t just wipe out that goodwill, it pushed negative feelings well beyond where things had been before. It made it clear that American Airlines does not value honesty. It showed that American Airlines did not value actually engaging with disgruntled customers. It showed that American Airlines did not value trying to make disgruntled customers happy. And, as such, it’s also probably giving a lot of people very good reasons not to be customers of American Airlines at all.

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Comments on “American Airlines Fires Designer Who Reached Out To Disgruntled Customer”

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John Doe says:

He spoke for the company

Whether he meant to or not, he spoke for the company and that can get you in trouble quickly. In this case, it sounds like he helped rescue a disgruntled customer. But the company probably felt it had no choice because if an employee had damaged a customer relationship and got fired they would point back to this guy doing the same thing and not getting fired. He is the victim of yet another zero tolerance policy.

Anonymous Coward says:

Zero tolerance?

John Doe:
The only grounds for firing that I can see is if there was a clear policy in place that strictly prohibited this employee’s contact with the customer. Just the fact that this customer interaction did not do damage to customer relationship is grounds enough for the employee to keep his job in the absence of any such policy.

Either way, poor form on AA’s part. Maybe Mr. X will get a job at Southwest Airlines.

Craylach says:

Re: Zero tolerance?

If I had an employee that did something like this – assuming it was the first time or there wasn’t some existing history of disrupting the team dynamic – I would commend their intentions and probably suggest that some of the parts referring to other areas of the compnay could have been worded better.

I suspect there might be pressure from above me to do something more harsh, but for a good employee, I’d take the heat.

Anonymous Coward says:

I like it when PR/Marketing goes wild with ideas-
From the link:

“They launched, a site targeting African Americans; AA Rainbow, a site it calls “the only LGBT dedicated sales team in the industry,” and AA Women, which, for some reason, targets women. People from all these groups have emailed me about these sites, remarking that they are confused, insulted, and feel singled-out. “It feels like AA is perpetuating the 50’s stereotype of a woman,” one woman told me, “and targeting us by promoting vacations for the man of the house to purchase.”

After all, black dudes need to visit Kenya every now and then. Gay boys should escape to Keywest, and Women definitely need to get their man to sign off on vacations.

I see nothing wrong with trying to consolidate deals so everyone on the plane is like you and the airline is profitable. After all, if the socioeconomic models can increase shareholder dividends, what’s wrong with that? After all, it isn’t really discrimination. It’s lower cost fares.

I wish they would have a BBQ-themed microsite. There’s a lot of good BBQ competitions in Texas in the summertime. Just don’t drink Aunt Edna’s Kool-aid.

Dark Helmet (profile) says:

Even beyond the good will...

The most important learning moment of this whole exchange is:

“he guy’s original response was an example of an excellent interaction with a disgruntled customer. It was honest. It responded to his concerns. It was real. It was HUMAN. It made Dustin actually reconsider his view of the company.”

For better or worse, fair or not, people do not look warmly upon a corporation, particularly one of any size. This is for a variety of reasons, probably none so prominent than large corporations tend not to have a single face attached to them, but the ominous-sounding “board”. This isn’t the case with all (like Microsoft, for instance), but my experience is that the more a corporation is tied to a single or few actual “faces”, or people, the better their image tends to be, so long as those people aren’t diabolical masterminds, a la Enron.

Here’s the deal: the more a corporation fosters it’s image as that of a person, or of a human, the better it’s image is going to be. The more it becomes a nameless corporation, the worse off it’ll be. I don’t know who heads up McDonald’s, I only know that it’s this big fucking thing, this giant corporation, whose only concerns can be profit, because that’s what corporations do. Now, the guy who owns the burger joint that just opened on the North Side of Chicago, the one who also owns Pompei and MK Restaraunts, and is also profit-driven? His is the face I picture when I think of the BMK Burgers, because he was interested enough to spend the last couple of weeks there as the place was opening, and he spoke with our table for a few minutes.

Human, not company.

Anonymous Coward says:

I have to explain this to other people in my group all the time. Do not blame another part of the company for failure to a customer. Do not complain about the company to the customer. They don’t care, and it only reflects negatively on the company. It’s just common sense. I’m not surprised he got fired. I probably would have fired him if put in that position.

the transporter says:

How ironic

that I just did a quick survey provided by and made the same complaints about their site. It is in desperate need of a new look and interface.
It’s very well known throughout the industry and my industry that AA is one of the worst airlines in the world. The apathetic long employed personnel and culture is entrenched, if any changes come they’ll be slow to emerge.

A shame to hear the story but the outcome is so true. You criticize a company publicly as an employee/contractor/consultant and you’ll be released yesterday.

Caroline (user link) says:

The Need for Social Media Standards

Indeed kudos for the designer wanting to reach out and provide some context for the apparent limitations of the AA website, it certainly provides a human touch. I would also not blame him for not knowing that this would be something that the company would frown upon and indeed, deem fire-worthy. This story just highlights the importance for all companies to have a Social Media Playbook. It is an unavoidable fact that your employees are online (whether at or after work) and it is critically important that they are aware of their rules of engagement when discussing their employer online. It is a shame to tell all employees that they are simply not allowed to be in touch with customers because they can be a great resource to harness to improve customer response time and satisfaction. It is important however that everyone is clear on the rules of engagement in this space. A Social Media Playbook creates these standards and serves as a online etiquette/guideline for all employees to ensure all representatives of the company are serving the company online in a way that is consistent with their overall brand message.

Need help with your Social Media Strategy? Infiltrate Now!

pr (profile) says:

Pretty much my experience with AA

AA has to be the most customer clueless organization in the air. (OK, not counting United.) Pretty much every experience I have with them is unpleasant because they don’t do even the simplest things right, like getting people through lines efficiently.

Northwest, on the other hand, gets the point made in the article, that even when things go bad a good response can make it better. I’ve been delayed by NWA a few times, and it’s always been followed with a letter of apology and some bonus flier miles. I love them, even to the point of writing back and telling them so. Too bad they’ve been absorbed by Delta, which used to be good but has deteriorated badly over the last ten years or so.

Yeah right says:

Answers on a postcard, please

Caroline, good for you that you’re able to make a living by churning out this hot air marketing drivel.

The guys “context for the apparent limitations of the AA website” is that the UX processes and culture at AA suck.
Please enlighten us how your management sanctioned ‘rules of engagement’ could ever include such a criticism, in fact, any criticism of the company at all?

dinoh (profile) says:

I wonder how this would hold up in court. I work for Wegmans, which is a grocery chain that sells customer experience as a brand, and is becoming more and more successful just because customers know that if we screw up, we are more than willing to fix the problem. Working for a company that prides itself on customer experience and service, I sometimes afraid of dealing with other companies, because it is hard to find a company that will actually go out of it’s way to help you. I think AA really screwed up here…horrible PR!

Cody Jackson (profile) says:

Happened to me

I used to work at a large computer manufacturer back in the mid 90s. I saw a post on the alt.computers newsgroup regarding my company and how the poster wasn’t able to get a replacement computer from the company to fix the problem he was having.

I posted on there (anonymously of course), explaining how the company determined determined who would get a new computer and what the circumstances were.

Unfortunately, the company noticed my post and traced it back to me. I admitted that I posted it, thinking the worst that would happen is I would be forbidden from posting to that newsgroup in the future.

However, supposedly I caused irreparable harm to the company. It was claimed that I cost the company millions of dollars because now “everyone knew the secret to getting free computers”. Except that I didn’t post anything that someone who had gone through the process didn’t already know, and the fact that there still had to be a lot of justification for a replacement computer. It’s not like the customer hadn’t already paid for it.

Long story short, I was fired based on a bogus claim. I know this because months later I found out from a person in the company that my post was on the servers for less than 14 hours and no one had accessed it during that time. Plus, my manager framed me to cover his own criminal activities within the company and he was sleeping w/ the HR representative who was supposed to be helping me.

I am not surprised that AA fired this guy for stating the truth. Companies don’t want their “secrets” getting out, regardless of whether or not they are truly secret. Companies continue to present the faceless empire facade to the public, refusing to have any indications that human beings are responsible for their activities.

That’s why these companies are in financial crisis. Customers are willing to deal w/ their crap anymore.

Anonymous Coward says:

This is american since when did corporations care so long as they got their money, the profit for the shareholder trumps EVERYTHING. If that guy won’t fly American again big deal there are plenty of others who will. The complaint will drift into who cares ;and and the new people buying tickets will be educated to believe that it wasn’t indicative of anything they need to worry about. Marketing will blair customer service and customer satisfaction and those dissatisfied well they are just being negative.

Rekrul says:

Sounds like AA was taking web management advice from the dictators who run the Internet Movie Database. On that site, you can be permanently barred from accessing the message boards on the whim of an administrator. There are never any warnings given, they absolutely refuse to tell you what you did wrong and there’s no appeal process whatsoever. Piss off an administrator and you get banend with no explanation and no appeal.

It claims to be an company, but when they banned me from posting for no reason, Amazon said they couldn’t do anything about it.

They won’t even listen to the users. Every time they make major changes to the site, the message boards are filled with people who hate the changes. The staff promises to listen to their ideas, a month goes by, they delete every thread complaining about the changes and declare that everyone loves the new site.

Neel says:

Why DO ALL airlines in America SUCK

what’s with this continent. the airlines simply suck. what a difference between flying one of these and then flying one of the asian airlines. some may consider them 3rd world but frankly I think its America that is 3rd world. Just fast cars dont make a modern world. Oh that reminds me, they dont even have health care !!! Geez!!!

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