Managing Those Pesky ‘Madvocates’ at United Airlines


Share on LinkedIn

Who doesn’t have an airline travel fiasco story? For business road warriors, it is like a badge of honor to complain about the time an airline lost your luggage just before the big agency pitch or missing a crucial meeting due to mechanical delays.

My air travel story is no different than most – except for how United Airlines handled me.

It starts like most travel-gone-wrong yarns: gotta be at a business meeting by 11AM, up at 4AM, hit the 7:30AM flight … then, wham! airline mechanical delays. My United flight to Toronto didn’t even take off until 3 hours after I was supposed to be at the meeting. Oh well, stuff happens. Relax and make the best of it.

Then, the story takes a different turn. Instead of letting a full plane of business travelers – most of them United Mileage Plus members – deplane & grumble all the way to their final destination, United nipped it in the bud. As we taxied off the runway, cell phones powered up & beep – a text message from United was waiting.

As I pondered the speed of United’s apology accompanied by a meaningful make-up offer of 7,000 Mileage Plus points or a dollar-based certificate or a percentage-discount certificate, I wondered if my status in the program made me the exception.

Naturally, I asked a few obvious road warriors around me if they got a similar message. And sure enough, the other Mileage Plus members on our flight also had received a similar message from United.

Wow. Now instead of having some of United’s top travelers grumbling for days about the big flight delay, they had us buzzing for an entirely different – positive! – reason. United made it up to us. They did it sincerely. And, they put their money where their mouth was.

Kudos to United Airlines for managing an unforseen & unavoidable delay by:

  1. Remembering to reach out to their potential WOM Champions and potential “Madvocates”. Just as we confirmed in our research, your best brand advocates can turn on you if you don’t treat them well.
  2. Acting quickly & having the infrastructure in place to enable a meaningful service recovery. I guarantee you that United’s apology would not have had the same impact if it arrived in my in-box 2 days later. By then, my fellow road warriors and I would have spread bad will with a lot of our business associates – and felt a sense of justified entitlement in our grouchiness.
  3. Offering fair value & a choice. United didn’t just say “I’m sorry.” They also provided a token of their appreciation in the form of miles or a choice of travel vouchers. (I took the miles, thank you very much.)
  4. Tailoring their appreciation token? OK. I wasn’t nosy enough to ask my fellow travelers if they got exactly the same offer I received in that text message. But, I’d like to believe that United might have tailored the size of their miles offer or travel voucher offer based upon the value and potential value of each United Mileage Plus member. If they didn’t, that would be a fantastic way to build on this successful event-triggered service recovery effort in the future.

Now, excuse me. I’m late for boarding my next United Airlines flight to Chicago …!

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Kelly Hlavinka
A partner of COLLOQUY, owned by LoyaltyOne, Kelly Hlavinka directs all publishing, education and research projects at COLLOQUY, where she draws on her broad experience as a loyalty strategy practitioner in developing articles, white papers and educational initiatives.


  1. Kelly –

    Apparently, United Airlines has learned some of the lessons associated with prospective customer alienation. Angry United customers posting their stories on the Internet have a ‘long tail’ insofar as impact on current, potential, and former customers is concerned. Dave Carroll’s song, “United Breaks Guitars”, viewed by close to 11 million folks on YouTube, was sufficient to get their attention:

    On a related note, the conceptual thinking between COLLOQUY and Market Probe on the positive and negative effects of customer advocacy is close enough………

    …..that, despite our having taken the initiative to establish a relationship through several discussions and conference calls with Jim Sullivan, and your research folks in Canada, it’s a shame that nothing substantive has come out of the extended dialogue.

    Michael Lowenstein, Ph.D., CMC
    Executive Vice President
    Market Probe (


Please use comments to add value to the discussion. Maximum one link to an educational blog post or article. We will NOT PUBLISH brief comments like "good post," comments that mainly promote links, or comments with links to companies, products, or services.

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here