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There’s a simple solution to preventing fiascoes like United’s, says kayak.com’s cofounder

Paul English offers his take on the airline’s recent customer service fiasco.

Travelers walk through the United Airlines terminal at O'Hare International Airport on April 12, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois. United Airlines has been criticized in recent days after airport police officers physically removed passenger Dr. David Dao from his seat and dragged him off the airplane, after he was requested to give up his seat for United Airline crew members on a flight from Chicago to Louisville, Kentucky Sunday night. / AFP PHOTO / Joshua LOTTJOSHUA LOTT/AFP/Getty Images

Joshua LOTT/Getty Images

Jonathan Wiggs/Globe staff/File

Paul English has founded multiple companies, including Kayak.com, and is CEO of the travel agency Lola.

Watching the horrific video of Dr. David Dao being dragged off a United flight in Chicago two weeks ago, I found myself thinking of the person who taught me the most important thing I know about how to treat others: my beloved Grammy. I grew up as one of seven siblings in West Roxbury, and when she visited, she was delighted to see us, even on days my parents were upset at whatever happened with me at school that day. She was kind beyond words.

I can imagine how shocked Grammy would be at the idea of a paying customer being forcibly removed from an airplane for no good reason. What if restaurants kicked customers out mid-meal because someone more important walked in and wanted a table? Something tells me that in today’s power-to-the-people world of social media, that restaurant wouldn’t survive long. So how is it that an airline expects to get away with it?

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The Dao fiasco isn’t just about mistakes made by the employees of United’s affiliate Republic Airlines and local law enforcement officers. It represents a systemic problem: So many businesses have lost sight of human kindness and decency, thinking this gets in the way of making money. Actually, research shows businesses that foster high-stress (that is, unkind) workplaces spend substantially more on health care, have far higher error rates, suffer lower productivity, and have much lower stock prices than those run with positive intent. I believe the person responsible for this systemic problem is always the chief executive officer. CEOs create company culture through their own behavior and the priorities they set for the company. If a company is solely driven by numbers and growth and does not have high bars set for customer experience and satisfaction, everyone loses.

When I’ve waited in lines at airports, about to board a plane, I have frequently heard gate personnel barking at their customers. I’ve wondered what the CEO would think if he or she heard the employee’s words and tone. Would that CEO speak up and apologize to the customer? Or terminate the employee? What kind of leadership and corporate environment creates a system where employees are not held accountable for practicing the basic human attribute of kindness? Nobody needs an Ivy League MBA to master kindness. We are all born with an endless reservoir of it and simply need to tap into it.

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I’ve spent most of my career in the technology industry, where there are plenty of jokes told about stupid things customers do. But at Kayak, my view was always through the lens of the customer. I asked that instead of snarking about stupidity, our engineers see customer complaints and confusion as opportunities to improve our service and make things easier. It worked for the business — Kayak stood out from a crowd of competitors. I took steps to ensure everyone in the Kayak ecosystem — customers, employees, partners — was treated with kindness. I’m sure we weren’t perfect. But my experience is that kindness is a powerful tool in disarming irate and upset people on both the business and personal fronts.

In fact, I think human kindness is the foundation of disruptive businesses, where old industries are changed by outsiders who see new needs in the market. Disruptive change can only come from a CEO who consistently talks about customers internally and externally. Look at Airbnb, the most innovative travel company in the world. Its CEO, Brian Chesky, went on Twitter for a day inviting anyone with ideas and comments to chat. His responses were remarkable in their honesty. This type of CEO-led culture is what created such an incredible app and travel experience, delighting millions of customers.

Can you imagine the CEO of an old airline holding an online session like this? I can’t, because airlines have created layers and layers between their customers and their most senior staff. Insulation removes empathy, the foundation for being kind.

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Being kind does take practice. When I was at Kayak, we came under intense pressure from a right-wing religious group for advertising on the All-American Muslim television show, and we decided not to renew our ads. When others attacked us for this, I was defensive and blamed the show’s ratings. I regretted that response and, like United’s CEO, gave a formal and contrite apology (it took me a few days, though).

What should have happened at United after that day in Chicago? The four airline employees who were displacing paying customers had to travel only about 300 miles, to Louisville. The airline could have found them other transportation or upped the compensation to entice another customer to disembark. Employees should never have called for backup or allowed a customer to end up in the hands of security officials.

It can’t be stated more simply than this: Companies must remember their customers are people. Maybe CEOs in airlines and elsewhere should think about how they’d like their own grandmothers to be treated, and act accordingly.

Paul English has founded multiple companies, including Kayak.com, and is CEO of the travel agency Lola. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.
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