How to Recover From a Massive Screwup

Lessons for Salespeople from the United Airlines Debacle

Something bad is going to happen. Maybe not today, or tomorrow, or next week. But if you sell advertising for a significant length of time, somebody will screw up and you’ll have to clean up the mess.

salespeople have to mop up the mess

Photo by Focus Pocus LTD

The dust has finally settled on the United Airlines “doctor dragged off the plane” affair of April 2017. I won’t focus here on the incident itself — pretty much everyone agrees that what happened to David Dao was outrageous. 

For those in the media sales business, the real lessons are in United Airlines’ response. 

It is unlikely that your company will ever administer a physical beating to a paying customer. But you will one day check your email and find out that something’s gone badly wrong. Such as:

  • Your client’s commercial didn’t run the week leading into their biggest sale of the year.
  • The wrong spot ran for a month — or longer — before somebody caught it.
  • The production department missed a crucial deadline.
  • Your company’s credit office — which is now a computer chip in a Cheyenne, Wyoming basement — denied credit to your big new direct account.

Handled correctly, a service failure can sometimes increase customer loyalty — a phenomenon known as the “Service Recovery Paradox”. It’s tricky to accomplish, and requires some training. 

Customer support expert Len Markidian points to Disney’s approach to service failures:

Their approach to service recovery is a five-step process, easily remembered with the acronym H.E.A.R.D:

  • Hear: let the customer tell their entire story without interruption. Sometimes, we just want someone to listen.
  • Empathize: Convey that you deeply understand how the customer feels. Use phrases like “I’d be frustrated, too.”
  • Apologize: As long as it’s sincere, you can’t apologize enough. Even if you didn’t do whatever made them upset, you can still genuinely be apologetic for the way your customer feels (e.g., I’m always sorry that a customer feels upset).
  • Resolve: Resolve the issue quickly, or make sure that your employees are empowered to do so. Don’t be afraid to ask the customer: “what can I do to make this right?”
  • Diagnose: Get to the bottom of why the mistake occurred, without blaming anyone; focus on fixing the process so that it doesn’t happen again.

It’s fair to say that in the first 24-48 hours after the incident, United didn’t bother to Hear or Empathize. They eventually got around to Apologizing and Diagnosing. They are now attempting to Resolve, but there will be lots of lawyers involved.

If you’re dealing with an angry client, and there’s even a small chance that the situation is your station’s fault, here are some “United Lessons” to heed:

  1. If you’re not sure what happened, find out before expressing your opinion. United dug itself a big hole early in the process by issuing statements that blamed the customer. No law says you have to issue a verdict right away. Promise the client you’ll get to the bottom of it… and then get to the bottom of it.
  2. Make a point of accepting all of the blame, even if it hurts. If you think your customer’s partially at fault, resist the urge to say so.  If your client goes from angry to angry-and-defensive, you lose. 
  3. Don’t point fingers. United CEO Oscar Munoz could have pointed out that the incident didn’t happen on a United Airlines flight — the United Express flight was operated by Republic Airways, a separate company. The flight crew and gate agents were Republic employees, not United employees; the people who dragged Dr. Dao off the plane worked for the Chicago Aviation Police. To his credit, Munoz understood that regardless of the legalities, this was a United Airlines problem. Your client won’t care if it’s the fault of Production, Accounting, or “Corporate.” If it happened at your station, and you’re the Account Executive,  it’s your problem to fix.
  4. Deliver the message in language your customer uses. If your response sounds like corporate-speak it will come off as insincere. When Munoz said, “I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers,” he lost everybody.
  5.  Make it right — give the client much more in return than they lost — and do it quickly. United took three days to offer refunds to the passengers of Flight 3411, and lost the chance to generate some goodwill. If you’re not sure what will make the client happy, ask. 
  6. Figure out what caused the problem, and how you can prevent it from happening again. United has announced some significant policy changes to make sure that paying customers already in their seats can stay. If you don’t have the ability to change policies, you may have to get creative.

 Bad things happen to even the best salespeople. With the right mindset, you can correct a big mistake and position yourself as a true professional.

Question: What’s the worst customer service fail/mess you’ve ever had to clean up? What did you do to resolve it, and what did you learn from the experience? You can leave a comment by clicking here.


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2 thoughts on “How to Recover From a Massive Screwup

  1. “If you think your customer’s partially at fault, resist the urge to say so. ”
    When I worked in radio, I got pretty good at handling these things. People who don’t do it well typically mess up that one. “We were at fault but…. you…” As you said, take all the blame even if it’s partially the client’s fault.

    I worked for an “avoider” once. The Burger King franchisee who it had taken me two YEARS to sell was calling the GM furious because our morning show said something derogatory about Burger King. My boss told me he’d call him Monday, walked into his office and closed the door. I knew that by Monday the damage would be irreversible. I tracked down the owner, at home, at 5:45pm on a Friday. He immediately started screaming at me. I was relieved! He was getting it all out and when he’d exhausted himself, I told him I didn’t blame him and he felt bad about yelling at me. I got his business back the next month. Beware the angry client who doesn’t get show anger and just says “it’s fine”. He’s probably gone for good.

    I always found it easy to handle angry clients when we screwed up. Sometimes an advertiser would call angry that we were airing the wrong spot and I found that we weren’t but our competitor was. It is far easier to apologize than to convince someone that they had the dial on the wrong station when they are sure they were listening to your station.

    One more “don’t”. I’ve been on the receiving end of this one more than once. A vendor royally screwed up my account and said “We apologize for the ‘confusion’.” That made angrier. I wasn’t “confused” I was pissed! And their attempt to pass their mistake off as something else just made it worse. But I just said “I’m fine. Don’t worry about it.” Then I cancelled. For good.

    • Great comment, Jerry. I love your take on apologizing even when it was a competitor who ran the wrong spot. If you could then contact the competitor, explain that you just took the heat for their mistake, and get them to fix their own traffic, they’ll owe you one.