Statistical Insignificance

Written By Dave Carroll
Published November 25th, 2000 in Adweek

One of the most annoying concepts far too many companies embrace when it comes to customer service is that of “statistical insignificance.” Their goal: “Get it mostly right, most of the time,” so that the number of customer service failures are so few in comparison to the number of satisfied customers or uneventful interactions that they are statistically insignificant (a.k.a., “not worth worrying about”).

The airline industry operates that way and that is why “United Breaks Guitars,” about my Taylor guitar being broken by baggage handlers and the indifference shown to me by the airline, has had such a profound impact.

In September, I was in Washington, D.C., to partake in a hearing in support of a Passengers Rights Bill sponsored by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). I was invited by Kate Hanai, founder of FlyersRights (formerly the Coalition for an Airline Passengers Bill of Rights), who began the organization in 2006 after having had the unfortunate experience of being on an airport tarmac stranded in a plane for several hours without adequate food, water and bathroom supplies. Kate has worked with politicians and action groups, and thought I might have something to add in terms of how property is handled. I was happy not only to give my testimony, but also to literally sing my testimony in a Congressional hearing room on Capitol Hill.

At that hearing a former airline CEO spoke in support of the bill, but I had difficulty understanding whose side he was on because his analysis was not customer service-centric, but focused on the challenges airlines face today. He said although it was unfortunate that people were trapped inside these planes, such long delays are “statistically insignificant” when measured against the thousands of flights where that doesn’t occur. If this gentleman were in college he would have gotten an “A” in stats class, but an “F” in customer service. It’s my argument that any company that shares his philosophy is shortsighted and doomed in the long run.

United Airlines has, on more than one occasion, issued press releases reminding us that 99.6 percent of their bags arrive on time and without incident. I was told that United flies 80 million passengers a year so, although most of the bags make it, according to my calculations that leaves a whopping 360,000 baggage incidents yearly. Is that statistically insignificant? To a mathematician it might be, but if you run an airline or have anything to do with customer service, seeing those kinds of numbers involving your company should leave you hunched in a corner in a cold sweat, rocking back and forth in the fetal position. It takes just three years for United to amass 1 million customers who have had delayed or damaged baggage. How many people will hear about these bad experiences? Getting it “mostly right” is nothing to boast about, and anyone with an understanding of the power of social media knows the significance of those numbers.

It’s been said that in the “old days” (maybe only a decade ago) that people who had a positive customer service experience would share that with three people. If they had a bad experience, they would tell 14. Clearly, bad news travels fastest and that hasn’t changed. But today, social media tools like Facebook, Twitter, MySpace and YouTube ensure that news travels exponentially. Whereas before I might have told 14 people that my guitar was seen being mishandled and broken, as of today I have reached more than 6 million people on YouTube with my story and, according to some estimates, some 100 million people if you total all media references.

I get the sense that big companies like United, in shooting for “mostly right, most of the time” and trying to ride out the negative experiences until they go away, are still relying on antiquated thinking when it comes to customer care. Today’s healthiest companies understand that good customer service is a requirement for success. They shoot to “get it right every time,” knowing there will be breakdowns along the way, but their customer service model has room to recover. Their philosophy starts with the fact that all customers deserve a positive experience — not most customers, but every one of them. The fact that even a small percentage of a customer base is unsatisfied is abhorrent to a customer-centric company and it shows in how they recover from a bad experience.

Companies that wish to be profitable a decade from now will adopt this approach to customer care because they understand that there is no part of that pie that can be marginalized without risking a viral backlash. In my case, one bad customer service experience was heard around the world. As more dissatisfied customers find creative ways to use social media, companies subscribing to a philosophy that accepts the notion “statistical insignificance” in their customer care will be compelled to care more or become a statistic of their own under the category “companies that used to exist.”

1 reply
  1. Tim says:

    Wow. Amazing. I am impressed by your story, your music and your video. I used to work at both a Waffle House and later a Starbucks (5 months for Waffle House and 14 or so months for Starbucks). I feel as though some of the people that I served – they just wanted free stuff. I got a bit burned out in that kind of service role because I really did want to help people, but I felt that some folks abused their power as a customer.

    I can also see how frustrating it can be from an honest guy with a ligitimate problem.

    This is a good discussion point and I am not sure how I would handle this if I was responsible to stockholders as the CEO of a company.

    Very Respectfully,


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.