United Airways vs. Walt Disney on the Ethics of Customer Respect

Dumbo provides excellent customer service

On Sunday, April 9, 2017, United Airlines initiated action to remove a paying passenger (Edit: NYT now behind pay wall, here’s an alternative) from their plane because someone they deemed more important needed the seat. The more important person was an employee, not a customer. In forcefully removing Mr. Dao from the plane, security staff left him with a broken nose, broken teeth, and a concussion. As a result, lawyer Thomas Demetrio of Corboy & Demetrio held a press conference today (April 13, 2017) broadcast live on CNN in which, aside from announcing a pending lawsuit, he raised the general question of why companies think they can treat people this way.

It’s an appropriate and timeless question.

After spending years researching the business practices of Walt Disney and preparing my book The Business of Walt Disney and the Nine Principles of His Success, to be published this summer, it is clear that Walt Disney had immense respect for people in general, and especially for customers. I can only imagine how outraged he would have been if a Disneyland guest was ever treated in such a manner, an emotion that the United Airlines CEO seems to lack when judged by his public PR statements and appearances following this latest UA outrage (anyone remember United Breaks Guitars, now with more than 17 million views).

This recent United Airlines incident raises our awareness of the always important issue of how people should treat other people, but also brings to the fore the seemingly wide-spread problem of CEOs and executives who seem not to understand that at the core of good business is customer respect. Business is by its nature a social transaction between people, and whenever people transact, issues of morality and ethics are foundational. Yet it seems too many executives operate their businesses as if ethics don’t matter; as if running a successful business has little to do with how people are treated.

Walt Disney loved people. Treating them well to improve their lives was at the core of everything he did. His lifetime personal mission was to make people happy. His vision and aspiration for Disneyland was to create the happiest place on earth. That wasn’t any easier to do in the amusement park industry than it may seem to be in the airline industry. Airlines like Southwest and others around the world show that there are better and worse ways to run the same business, and that those that strive to treat people with the respect they deserve will rise to the top in the eyes of consumers. If Walt Disney ran an airline, I have no doubt he would have aspired to make it the happiest airline on earth. Does anybody think that United’s CEO was spending time thinking about and working on this? It’s sad that such a question seems almost silly, but in all seriousness, shouldn’t it be his responsibility as CEO to create the best airline for customers? Wouldn’t that be good for business? – for customers, employees, and investors?

The issue of customer treatment by business leaders should be top of mind in every boardroom and C-Suite. In this excerpt from The Business of Walt Disney and the Nine Principles of His Success, I address this issue in the context of Walt Disney and his competitors. The role of executives in creating a business culture that understands the important role customers play in their business success is worthy of serious consideration.

The unfortunate truth is that it’s very difficult to satisfy consumers. To do so is an immense entrepreneurial and managerial achievement. To have our expectations satisfied – to experience perfection – is something each of us desires. The amount of complaining we do is evidence of this. While the desire to experience perfection may have a certain spiritual dimension, those rare occasions when we do experience it directly can often be attributed to the heroic efforts of individuals, working together, with a commitment to achieve a common result that we highly value.

When it came to the building of Disneyland, Walt was extremely customer-driven. He once said, “Everything I do I keep a practical eye toward its appeal to the public.” To be customer-driven, Walt required his artists and designers to seek out improvement opportunities by observing and interacting with guests.

Perfection is a lofty goal that most people believe to be beyond their reach, so they never strive for it, either in their personal or professional lives. If business executives don’t think they can organize and manage to reach a lofty goal, it is almost certain that they won’t. Instead, they’ll set the bar too low and celebrate their competitively insignificant achievements. Too many organizational leaders appear to subscribe to Woody Allen’s humorous dictum that 80% of life is “just showing up.” You didn’t just show up if you worked for Walt Disney.

As consumers, we have resigned ourselves to social and cultural mediocrity, and as a result we are disappointingly accepting when that is all we get from the organizations we deal with.

Why as consumers do we accept such low standards of behavior? Primarily because we have been led to believe that is costs more to deliver a better result, and we typically don’t want to pay more.

In too many cases business executives conclude – sometimes correctly – that consumers don’t want to pay more for that additional value. As a result, business owners and managers often build mediocrity into their business model, convinced that sound business wisdom calls for increasing profits by foregoing quality. Too often managers are encouraged to reduce costs and maximize efficiency at the micro-level when what is needed is to demonstrate respect for customers by maximizing value creation for the system as a whole at the macro-level.

Walt repudiated such destructive business practices as an economically unsound prescription for mediocrity. He held himself to very high personal standards from the start, recognizing very early in his career that the public expected high standards from the Disney brand. He held a personal responsibility to the people who made him successful to meet those standards. Later, with regards to Disneyland, he said about the public: “When they come here they’re coming because of an integrity that we’ve established over the years. And they drive hundreds of miles. I feel a responsibility to the public.” Walt paid attention to, and understood that there was an implicit value equation, a relationship between the perceived value of what was being offered, and the price consumers were willing to pay for acquisition.

Walt demonstrated to anybody in the business world who was paying attention that any cost/benefit equation pointing to the sacrifice of values sought by customers is false. It is wrong on all accounts: moral, economic, and spiritual. As human beings, we pay an inordinately high price for abrogating our responsibility as consumers to set our standards high and reward those entrepreneurs that can best fulfill our pursuit of our own life-affirming values. Walt refused to tolerate employees and vendors who couldn’t live up to his expectations and standards. Often these were standards of capability and integrity rather than results.

Barry Linetsky is Partner with The Strategic Planning Group and author of the soon to be published The Business of Walt Disney and the Nine Principles of His Success (ThemeParkPress.com). Twitter @BizPhilosopher. Excerpt from The Business of Walt Disney and the Nine Principles of His Success, © 2017, Barry L. Linetsky. All Rights Reserved.

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