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Friday, May 28, 2010

Is Zappos the Anti-United?

Both companies have had service experience foul-ups that became publicly visible throughout the social media sphere.

United involved a single case of a damaged guitar handled poorly, but that spawned a video since played virally over 8 million times and chronicled as a case study by Harvard Business Review.

Zappos involved thousands of customers impacted by an incorrect implementation of a pricing change and ultimately the temporary shutdown of the site.

In recovering service, providing a fair outcome for the customer is the key, but almost as important is the speed with which the company reacts, usually driven by the ability of employees to make good on their service promise after it has initially failed.

United is literally a case study in how not to approach service recovery. By refusing to pay $3,000 for the damage to Dave Carroll’s guitar because he failed to file the damage claim within 24 hours, the company provided no fairness of outcome. They acted slowly, hiding behind process & red tape, hoping the customer would eventually tire of the claim process and simply give up. Along the way, they repeatedly showed their insensitivity through employees not empowered to act on the behalf of the customer.

Zappos, on the other hand, handled its service encounter miscue with fairness, honoring the purchase price of all items at $49.95, regardless of what they were supposed to sell at – a move that instantly cost the company $1.6M. They acted quickly in doing so, announcing within hours of the occurrence that they had made a mistake, that the mistake had been corrected, and that the purchase prices on the transactions would be honored. One could argue that as the CEO, of course Tony Hsieh is always empowered to make decisions. But part of empowerment is the ability for the line to make critical issues visible to leadership, so that they can act quickly and appropriately. (It’s likely that an organization without that kind of upward information unempowerment is the culprit behind the millions of gallons of oil still gushing into the Gulf of Mexico.)

If you ever wanted to draw attention to your fledgling luxury site, there are worse ways to do it than spending $1.6M in what amounts to free advertising that reinforces the offering, the service integrity, and the brand. On the other hand, while the ultimate cost of United’s flawed customer service wasn’t likely the 10% of market cap claimed by The Times, it probably cost them more than Zappo’s $1.6M in negative reinforcement.

We often speak about the power of word of mouth. With over 8M hits and an HBR case study, the negative WOM is evident. I still feel like we’re a viral video short here, but “Zappo’s Honors its Purchase Prices” is harder to fit to a rhyme.