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3 Lessons SMBs Can Learn from United Airlines & Fyre Festival

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Recent weeks have seen some of the largest service breakdowns and resulting PR disasters in recent memory.

Everyone is aware of the United Airlines story: A flight leaving Chicago needs to free up some seats for another flight crew. After offering incentives to free up some seats, and still in need of more, they hold a lottery picking other passengers for removal and rebooking. One passenger objects and resists, leaving initially, then comes back on the flight refusing to leave. Other passengers record video this passenger screaming, bloody being dragged off the plane by the Chicago Aviation Security.

The Fyre Festival was promoted as a tropical “Coachella-style” destination music festival in the Bahamas. Using slick promotion, super-models, and celebrity endorsements on social media, customers plunked down $10,000 – $250,000 for the luxury experience. Upon arrival, customers found chaos, cold cheese sandwiches, hastily-erected tents for sleeping, and their luggage being tossed off of trucks like food in a refugee camp. Guests flee, celebrity sponsors seek distance and lawsuits are flying.

At first glance you might not think these large scale service breakdowns have any lessons for small and medium sized businesses (SMBs) that operate on a smaller, local scale. But let me offer some lessons that likely apply in a universal way.

1. You can’t hide behind legalese and small-print disclaimers.

Your promotion, contest or customer event likely has some small-print disclaimer or conditions, but when customer service breaks down its time to err on the side of the customer. Everyone buying an airline ticket agree to the disclaimers (usually without reading them), but that point pales in comparison to an ugly experience captured on video.

If you make promises and set expectations, you need to keep them…as well as uphold the spirit of the agreement. Remember, your brand can go viral locally (for good or bad reasons) and have a profound impact upon your business.

2. Assume everyone has a smart phone and can shoot video, so every poor customer service experience can be showcased instantly on social media

Front line staffs need to be aware how customer service delivery is perceived. Talk through worst-case scenarios with them before your event. What are the escalation triggers and rules to call for assistance? Remember, most videos will only start once initial service attempts have failed. It isn’t fair, but early attempts at resolution will likely not be captured, or will be edited out to present the most dramatic narrative.

Understanding and training to deescalate conflicts will help keep your business out of this drama.

3. Your product suppliers or franchise headquarter have a right to be concerned with your event or local promotion.

The Internet loves cute kittens and ugly customer service episodes. Perhaps the fascination comes from past experiences we’ve had, or the ability to identify with the victim. Either way, your suppliers or sponsors can often be tied to this more prominently when it goes viral.

Keep in mind that they have national brand names, and years of investment to strengthen those brands. This is the whole idea behind a national brands’ channel marketing portal that provides control, structure and guidance to SMB marketing efforts. Using this marketing guidance and the proper templates helps all parties set the right expectations for a successful promotion or event.

Remember that all the Internet memes were aimed at United Airlines, not the Chicago Aviation Authorities. Big brands are big legal targets. Your suppliers and sponsors understand this all too well.

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