United Airlines’ Higgins: guitar blunder “made terrific fodder for a video”

By | August 14th, 2009

BarbaraWhen something goes wrong on a United Airlines flight, Barbara Higgins hears about it. And as the company’s vice president of customer contact centers, she heard — or rather saw — trouble when she opened her mailbox a few weeks ago and watched the viral video United Breaks Guitars. But no one could have anticipated what happened next. I asked her to explain.

United Breaks Guitars is up to almost five million views on YouTube. What happened here?

We made a number of mistakes that, when added together, made terrific fodder for a video. But essentially Canadian musician Dave Carroll filed a claim with us when he discovered damage to his guitar after he flew from Halifax through Chicago to his gig in Omaha. When the claim was received, the standard 24 hours timeframe had passed. The 24-hour guideline is in place to ensure we can promptly identify and make amends for damage that happened while bags were in our care, while also protecting the company from fraud.

Just for the record, does United break a lot of guitars?

No, of course not. In fact, I think people would be amazed at our track record in which more than 99.95 percent of our guests’ bags are delivered on-time and with no damage whatsoever. That’s like three to four bags every 100,000 guests. Of course any bag lost or damaged is one too many, but clearly our employees do great work safely transporting thousands of checked bags, including guitars, tubas and drums that belong to many Grammy award-winning musicians. We even fly precious cargo like flowers, fine wine and fruit across the ocean.

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What regretfully happened was an anomaly, not the norm, and was clearly an unintentional accident.

If you’d had a chance to review this case, how would you have handled it differently?

We could have done a better job helping him report the damage when he first noticed it being mishandled, or immediately when it was discovered, which would have enabled the claim to be resolved promptly. That’s the premise of how we will use this incident for training … that it’s all of our jobs to ensure our guests are taken care of.

I understand a sequel of the video is in the works, focusing on the agent who denied Dave Carroll his initial claim. What are your expectations?

We expect the second video to be as light-hearted as the first, and have only asked that it not attack specific people. As Mr. Carroll has said directly, the agent he encountered is a great employee, unflappable and acted in the interests of the United policies she represented, and we couldn’t agree more. But in all candor, Mr. Carrroll has made his point, we have incorporated the experience into our training.

How, exactly, would a video like this be incorporated into training?

It will provide all of us — regardless of where we work or in which department — with an example of how we can be more empathetic to our guests when situations suggest we should. In our business, how we conduct ourselves is important, and our employees understand that treating each other and our guests in a courteous and respectful manner is a vital part of running a good airline.

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Are the agents handling claims empowered to use their discretion when dealing with grievances such as Carroll’s? Have you changed your processes since this video was released?

Our agents are empowered to escalate serious concerns that they hear from our guests. We have since provided them with a better way to do that to ensure we can be more responsive to special situations that arise, while also protecting us from the fraud that we see.

What lessons, if any, has United learned about social media as a result of United Breaks Guitars?

We understand the power of social media and the implications it has on our reputation, and realize it has a role in our communicating to our guests and the public at large. We also put the highest priority on making things right directly with our customer in the most helpful, meaningful and immediate manner, and most often that means picking up the phone and calling them, rather than using social media to talk to everyone about one person’s personal travel experience. So, like most things, it’s a combination of ways to connect to our guests.

I’m told that there may be a collaboration with Sons of Maxwell and United on the third video. Sounds as if there are no hard feelings, and you did it all without the help of a beer summit. Can you give me a preview of video number three, and what you hope to accomplish with it?

We have been invited to have a role in the third song, and what that looks like is best answered by the musical talent and expertise demonstrated by Mr. Carroll.

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Our expertise is in running a good airline. I talk to our guests every day about what is on their minds and they are telling us in our customer satisfaction scores that we are improving. While there are always opportunities to do better in any business, there are many untold stories about our great employees who are at the forefront of running a good airline for our guests.

We have made significant improvements in operating on-time flights and delivering courteous service. In fact, we ranked No. 1 in on-time performance among the five major U.S. network carriers year-to-date through May and though we did slip a bit in June, we are back to fighting it out for the top spot in July.

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