The Dangers of Dishonest Marketing
Summer involves a lot of air travel for me, and so I suppose I get inspired, or provoked, to address my airline frustrations and relate them to leadership and management. But the purpose here is not to complain about bad service.
That’s not to say that the flight that stimulated this essay featured good service. It didn’t. It was one of the big, legacy air carriers, and even as we were boarding the flight attendants made it clear that they were not looking forward to our disruptive presence in their workplace. But I’ve grown somewhat accustomed to that, so I wasn’t particularly upset by the situation.
What made this experience particularly frustrating was something that happened even before the plane took off. Just before the safety briefing, a video was shown featuring the CEO of the airline, who warmly greeted passengers and proudly announced that customer service was the hallmark of the airline, and that it always has been.
It got worse. Next we watched short clips of smiling employees–flight attendants, customer service agents, pilots–declaring that everything they do, the reason they work, is to make customers happy. It was surreal and, frankly, insulting.
As unpleasant as this was for me and the other passengers, I think the most uncomfortable people on the plane were the flight attendants who had to stand there and watch themselves portrayed in a way that did not generally reflect anything close to reality. Whether they were ashamed of themselves or disgusted by their leader, I don’t know, but either way it was awkward.
Anyway, once I got beyond my initial reaction to all this, I came to realize that there are two lessons to be learned here. First, leaders should not use marketing to address an issue that is more fundamentally related to organizational health. This only masks the problem and prevents the organization from addressing it at its core, which almost always starts at the top.
Second, leaders who do this throw gasoline on a fire, making a bad situation even worse. See, there is something far, far more maddening than experiencing poor service: being lied to about that service and having your intelligence insulted. I am not proud to admit that I had a very visceral, bitter attitude about that CEO at that moment, and I think his flight attendants did too.
Frankly, I would have preferred if he had come on the video and explained, “Ladies and gentlemen, thanks for flying our airline. Though we say you have a choice, these days you probably don’t as we may be the only airline serving this route at this time of day. And I know all too well that the service you get when you fly with us is inconsistent, if not unfriendly. Unfortunately, for a lot of reasons that I can’t go into here, it’s difficult for us to get rid of surly flight attendants, and for that matter, reward the really good ones. But I hope you’re fortunate to have a really good one today, and if not, I hope the overall experience isn’t too unpleasant. And please know that we always do our best to make the flight safe.”
I would have stood and applauded. And you know what? I think that kind of honesty would actually do more to provoke a cultural change at the airline by making the less friendly flight attendants not want to be seen that way.
Okay, just as I was finishing this essay, I arrived at my destination city and checked in at a big airport hotel. My colleague and I were greeted somewhat unenthusiastically by a young woman at the check-in desk who was wearing a ribbon emblazoned with the word “WOW” on it. We asked her what it meant and she told us, a little hesitantly, that it had to do with providing customers with great service so they would say ‘wow.’
As she explained this, another ribbon-wearing employee was standing next to her, doing nothing. She neither smiled, looked up at us, nor asked if she could help my colleague check- in. I can only imagine what must have been going through her mind as she listened to our conversation and decided not to engage.
Again, the point here is not to be harsh on these particular employees. Like flight attendants and the rest of us, they have their stories and their challenges in life, I’m sure. The point is that leaders of organizations only make their problems worse when they use gimmicks and marketing programs to convince customers that they’re good at something that anyone with eyes and ears knows they do poorly.
Of course, what these companies need to do is address the underlying cultural and operational issues at the heart of their service problem. And if they ultimately come to the conclusion that they shouldn’t or can’t invest in improving service–which might be justified–then they should focus on touting their real strengths and stop insulting their customers and employees by making preposterous and unjustified claims.
Ultimately, people want honesty, clarity, and even vulnerability from the companies that serve and employ them. And I’m convinced that they’ll reward those companies for it. Heck, maybe the woman at the hotel should have said, “Hi. We’re not the Ritz-Carlton, but the rooms are clean, we don’t have bedbugs and there’s free wi-fi. That’s all you really need for the money you paid, right?” Okay, that may be unrealistic, but I swear it would be better than the “WOW” ribbons.