Shep Hyken

By Shep Hyken

Customer Service Lessons Learned from United Airlines Computer Outage

Customer Service Lessons Learned from United Airlines Computer Outage 150 150 Shep Hyken

The problem lasted two and a half hours and caused 200 flight delays and six cancellations. No, this wasn’t just a single unhappy customer complaining to a gate agent at the airport. These were the results of a recent widespread computer outage at United Airlines. Thus, thousands of people were inconvenienced. I would describe a two-plus-hour delayed flight as a Moment of Misery™.

This outage resulted in thousands of passengers becoming angry. Yet, problems like this are seemingly unavoidable; just last year it happened to Delta and Southwest. Sometimes it may not be a computer glitch, but a weather problem that can cause airline delays. Yet every cloud can have a silver lining; this is an example of a mini-case study on how to handle a customer service crisis.

I did not witness what happened at the airport when passengers approached United’s gate agents for help, nor did I listen on the phone lines as passengers tried to reach their customer service representatives. I’m sure there were both long lines and long hold times. Those individual interactions turned out either good or bad because of the individual employees’ attitudes and how well they had been trained to handle such situations. Instead, what I am about to address is the overall response that United Airlines made, and how it was an excellent example of what to do in a crisis.

I teach a five-step process on how to deal with a complaining customer, and for those who follow my work, here is a short review:

1. Acknowledge the problem.

2. Apologize for the problem.

3. Fix the problem – or discuss how it will be fixed.

4. Do it with the right attitude – not just being nice, but acting accountable.

5. Doing all of this with a sense of urgency.

Well, you can extend how you should deal with an individual customer to the way you should deal with a service crisis that impacts thousands of customers.

First, United acknowledged and apologized for the inconvenience. They covered the first two steps. United responded to media inquiries and tweeted out to all of their followers: A ground stop is in place for domestic flights due to an IT issue. We’re working on a resolution. We apologize for the inconvenience.

Then they fixed it, accomplishing step three.

Step four was complete when they accepted responsibility. No excuses. Maddie King, a spokesperson for United, met with the press and told them they were working to fix the problem. In other words, United was owning the problem.

Finally, there was a sense of urgency throughout the entire process. Because United worked hard and fast, it took them just two and a half hours to fix the problem. The key to restoring confidence is urgency.

So, whether you have a single customer complaining or a major service crisis affecting thousands of customers, consider the five-step process, which not only fixes what is broken, but can potentially restore the customer’s confidence. And, done well, the process may even restore the customer’s confidence to a level higher than if the problem had never happened at all.

Shep Hyken is a customer service expert, keynote speaker and New York Times bestselling business author. For information contact or For information on The Customer Focus™ customer service training programs go to Follow on Twitter: @Hyken