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When is a crisis management plan needed?

Some experts call it “the speed of shame.” It’s the lightning-fast time it takes today for a disgruntled customer to make a dealer look bad to hundreds or thousands of other people.

Last week we were handed a textbook example of how quickly a business can see its good image tarnished. I’m referring to United Airlines’ overbooking debacle in which the airline had a passenger dragged off the plane (who could miss the the viral video or news reports?). For United, it’s a continuing nightmare of its own making.

Today “the speed of shame is as fast (and as ruthless) as the Internet,” contends Andrew Winston writing in the Harvard Business Review. Winston is co-author of the bestseller “Green to Gold and author of “The Big Pivot” and “Green Recovery” while also advising companies on handling environmental and social challenges.

When United employees had security officers forcefully pull the paying customer out of his seat and dragged down the aisle because United needed the seat on the overbooked flight for its own employee, the airline forgot something very important. Today, everyone carries a video camera and can literally be posting on YouTube or streaming live on Facebook within minutes. In other words, if people feel unfairly treated in some way, they can destroy brand trust at the speed of light.

It would all be funny if it were not so serious. Like the map on the Internet of a new United plane seating section called “Fight Club.” Or the Sunday cartoon in newspapers nationwide showing passengers boarding through one doorway labeled “Carry On” next to another doorway with a passenger being dragged out labeled “Carry Out.”

According to Winston, in the basic reality of the world businesses must operate in today, three themes seem critical:

First, being aware of the Internet’s capability to shame a business is a powerful reality. Moreover, while it’s too early to predict the financial damage in the United case, the brand will likely keep taking hits for a while. Indeed, other stories about being mistreated by United are now getting “airtime” and countless people are pledging to stop flying United. So the pain can’t be instantly relieved.

Second, when things go wrong, as they invariably do in a business from time-to-time, everyone impacted expects an apology. Make it a genuine one, Winston urges. It’s important to act quickly and own the error. United blew it. The airline’s first statement, from CEO Oscar Munoz, was bizarre, focusing on the employees following some inane procedure while also using a euphemism for violently yanking the passenger out of the plane: “This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United,” Munox said. “I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers.”

Re-accommodate? Are you kidding? Social media had a field day at United’s expense with that one. And a host of new slogans for the airline have also been suggested: like, “United: We put Hospital in Hospitality” or “United: We’ll Drag You All Over the World.” Or my personal favorite: “Ladies and Gentlemen, We’ve Now Reached Bruising Altitude.”

Third, employees must feel safe and empowered to speak up and act. The biggest question Winston says he has about the United brand disaster is: Why didn’t anyone say something before things got out of hand? If they believed they were expected to go beyond following rules and maximizing performance, United employees would have stepped in to de-escalate the situation once they realized something was going horribly wrong on that flight.

While no boat dealership has the size or complexity of United, it is just as important to recognize how quickly an unhappy customer, given their access to the power of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other social media, can inflict damage to an otherwise reputable name. It is, therefore, important for all businesses to determine whether their culture clearly grants to employees the power and safety to react to a fast-moving situation in a fair and respectful way. It can end problems before they begin.

As Winston indicates: When literally anyone who does business with you can simultaneously act as a customer, a protester, a critic and even a muckraking reporter with a video camera, good dealers really have zero room for error.

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