What Would Happen If United and Zappos Combined Their Service Operations?

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As a thought leader in the area of customer service and retention, that topic is always front and center in our home.  People send me interesting articles and I, too, am always on the lookout for customer service stories – both positive and negative.  My daughter-in-law thought I would be interested in a piece from Man Repeller entitled, “I Made Zappos My Personal Assistant For A Week.”  It appeared in the April 26th edition.

The Zappos story read like a charm.  The author, Haley Nahman, a customer, (we all are) discovered that the corporate mandate of Zappos is “to answer, or at least try, every query thrown their way.”  Haley elaborates her disdain for customer service in general and how over the course of a week, the Zappos team “restored her faith in online humanity.”

So, how was this accomplished?  Haley emailed increasingly difficult questions to the Zappos staff from “what style shoe should I wear with my capris that have been gathering dust in the closet” to “I found an expensive pair of loafers – do you have something similar for less?”  Then she took out her big guns.  “What do I do with my standoffish cat?” Next question: “I’m having a party and want to serve artichoke dip.  Do you have a good recipe?”  She even asked about relationships.  The point is that every question was answered timely and sincerely offering either good advice or a step by step recipe.  As the author says, “her faith in customer service is restored and she will spend discretionary income at Zappos for the next ten years.”



Let us examine the other extreme.  My wife and I took a United flight last week that was delayed 7 hours because of a mechanical issue.  We boarded the plane and then had to get off. The pilot told us that there was a problem – that’s it.  Obviously, if we had to deplane.  There was no communication during the delay even to the extent that United employees didn’t know what was happening.  Zero information about when the problem would be fixed, we might take off and no compassion for the passengers even though our lives were disrupted.  We, the passengers, continually received texts with updates that were false, adding to the confusion.  The experience could not have been any worse.

What surprised me is about two years ago I wrote a blog about an agent from United who was “perfect” and created a memorable experience for every passenger in a similar situation.  He communicated comprehensive information with confidence and even a sense of humor. Basically, he treated the passengers as “people”.  At the time, United thanked me for writing the blog, acknowledged the rep, and hung the blog for all to see in the associate break room.

Perhaps, instead of just hanging the blog, United should have incorporated what the rep did for every employee so that every customer could benefit from good customer service.

As noted, the above are two extreme examples of customer service. As a businessperson, I could not recommend to our clients that they replicate the Zappos philosophy of answering any question that is posed. However, Zappos clearly has an outstanding reputation because they empower their employees to make customers happy, providing them with the tools and training to make intelligent decisions, and Zappos hires the right people. The customer, Haley, who pushed the envelope and received the ultimate service delivery, made her point and tested the system. United, as the case for many airlines, doesn’t seem to have SOP’s (Standard Operating Procedures) in place about the best way to communicate to passengers about delays and other travel impediments. What I don’t understand is that providing customers with additional and useful information costs zero dollars but the return on investment is priceless. Seems so simple.



In 2009, Zappos was acquired by Amazon. I’m hoping that in the near future, Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s CEO, will decide to purchase United. I would love to be a fly (no pun intended) on the wall to see how they would merge the two customer service models.

What do you think would happen?  

9 COMMENTS

  1. We all enjoy considering how service from (Your Most Despised Service Provider) would be enhanced if they were run by (Your Most Adored). The challenge is daunting however when you examine the realities of culture change. Zappos culture was created from scratch largely through the leadership of Tony Hsieh and chronicled in his best-selling book, Delivering Happiness.

    United, on the other hand, is a blend of many cultures, some with good reputations for service (like People Express); some with the opposite. The “family tree” of United includes Capital Air, PanAm, Continental, New York Air, Pioneer Air, People Express, Frontier Airlines and on and on. Merging divergent cultures is always tough, even with the best and brightest. Couple that with the influence of tough unions and you get an uphill challenge.

    I am by no means defending United. I like them as much as you and your wife. I outlined the Dave Carroll “United Breaks Guitars” saga in my book Wired and Dangerous. Again, your point is a fun one to consider. And, I am certain some of United’s passengers have said, “This clearly is not Nordstrom or Southwest or Zappos,” One wonders what the leadership of United views as their top priority–a great passenger experience or something else?

  2. Morphing a culture, and a set of ingrained processes, to emphasize customer (and employee) experience optimization is a huge undertaking, sort of like a small tugboat trying to maneuver an aircraft carrier into port. In big companies, with laconic, reactive, tactical, transactional customer interactions, it is even more difficult. And, because these organizations are using ineffective, minimally actionable metrics like satisfaction, NetPromoter, and Customer Effort score to gauge the effectiveness of customer experience initiatives, they will continue to be challenged to empower and enable employees to go beyond the dots.

  3. Chip, thanks for your comments. I really try to be fair when I critique a company. It does seem that no matter what the background of the culture is, having a one page check-list of what to say and do when a flight is delayed doesn’t seem to be that difficult. It’s not like having a delayed flight is a once in a lifetime experience. Have a wonderful day. Richard

  4. Hi Richard: it’s an interesting question, but United and Zappos are about as alike as . . . well – I’ll just say they are not at all alike. Anytime I travel by air, I am awed by the complexity. When I order a product from Zappos, I don’t have that same feeling. Running a major airline profitably is much harder than running Zappos profitably. (Some will adamantly disagree with my assertion – I’m happy to discuss this more deeply over beer.)

    I share your frustration that providing additional and useful information to customers would go a long way toward improving customer service. But providing it is far from cost-free. There are many business rules that must be designed, tested, and implemented. Controls must be established to prevent erroneous information from promulgation. Disparate systems must be integrated (operations, weather, passenger reservations, wireless), and complex data files must be passed between them. All of this requires significant IT time and investment. Oh, I should mention that none of this gets done without approval from the Chief Legal Officer.

    Partly, we have become jaded because with services such as Amazon, the customer experience seems so easy, and we don’t think much about what’s happening on the IT back-end. When information technology work the way it’s supposed to, that’s exactly the right perception.

    As a separate, but related side note: A few years ago, I looked into whether the United Breaks Guitars incident, and negative publicity surrounding it, had any measurable impact on the company’s revenue or profitability. I didn’t discover anything definitive. Maybe you have some insight into whether this customer service debacle became a revenue debacle. If not, it’s understandable that the airline would be blase about improvement.

  5. I’ve noticed that many if not most customer-centric leaders don’t come from an aggregation of acquired companies like United. BTW, Zappos is now owned by Amazon, but has been allowed to run independently.

    Why? It’s really hard to change culture, and doubly so when it’s a mix of companies, some with employees that may not feel any affinity for the new firm. That’s the challenge of leadership.

    The airline industry is tough enough on its own, with success stories like Southwest exceedingly rare. Southwest’s culture was set by its founder Herb Kellerher and lives on after his departure. Other airlines have gone through decades of downsizing, consolidating and dealing with disgruntled unions, giving Southwest room to grow.

    Getting back to United… all is not lost. After being a perennial ‘worst’ in customer sat ratings (low 60s in ACSI), the most recent ratings show a big jump to 68 — within striking range of the industry average. But JetBlue, Southwest, and Alaska are still far ahead.
    http://theacsi.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=147&catid=&Itemid=212&i=Airlines

    Andy, I think you’re right that the UBG incident by itself didn’t explain business performance or stock price problems for United. But, it was part of a continuing drum beat of posts about poor customers service. Years ago, I wrote my own post promising to only fly ABU — Anything But United.

    United’s most recent financial performance is looking up — but seems to be mainly due to lower fuel prices — which has helped the entire airline industry — and a jump in ancillary (e.g. baggage) fees.
    http://newsroom.united.com/2016-04-20-United-Airlines-Announces-Strong-First-Quarter-2016-Performance

    Time will tell if this is part of a long-term trend or a one-time blip. Here’s a good article about United turnaround.
    http://www.travelpulse.com/news/airlines/5-ways-united-airlines-turned-around-its-fortunes.html

  6. Great discussion!

    I echo Chip’s & Bob’s sentiments on transformation, and Michael’s on the current ‘paralysis by analysis’ trend. There’s a reason why so few organizations truly succeed in attempts to reinvent themselves – even when they try to adopt practices from solid role models. Creating a culture from scratch, and changing an existing culture are two very different things, with the latter being a much more daunting task.

    I’m not sure I totally agree with the argument about how different the industries are. I think companies in every industry have potential to truly stand out with the experience they provide. Most simply don’t see it as core part of their business plan. They can’t/won’t connect the dots between the investment in CX and the sustainable profitability of a company.

    Outside of the airlines Bob mentioned, the industry is opting for the “squeeze ’em, don’t please ’em” model. The chatter over seat size is increasing dramatically. I think it’s only a matter of time before one of the airlines (or a new one) disrupts this.

    I was doing the math a while back, while squished in a UA seat on a flight from Chicago to LA, and the results were interesting. If an airline focused on planes with 3″ more legroom and 4″ more seat width, they could offer the same flight for under $60 extra. Add an additional $5 per passenger to fund better processes, better training, etc – and they could turn the industry on its ear.

    Who knows? Maybe Zappos is a great example of a company with the vision to try this!

  7. Shaun, thanks for your detailed comments. Since I fly United more than any other airline (location, location, location), I’m hoping that they decide to disrupt the industry in a good way. They are spending big dollars on new planes and refurbishing their lounges. Perhaps they could reserve a few thousand dollars to train their staff on how people “feel” when their flights are delayed and cancelled. Richard

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