Marco Prati/Shutterstock

Marco Prati/Shutterstock

Spectacular customer service failures are the grist of my consumer advocacy mill.

But some of the loudest implosions are off limits to me. Like the young blogger who was reportedly booted from a United Airlines flight. His crime? Taking pictures of his seat in apparent violation of the airline’s photography policy.

Even though colleagues urged me to come to his assistance, I couldn’t. He didn’t ask me for help, and I have a strict policy of staying away from cases where I’m not invited.

Not that I could do much, anyway. Based on his account, it appears the flight crew overreacted to his journalistic curiosity, which is a problem I’ve encountered several times. A few years ago, for instance, a wildlife photographer on a JetBlue flight took some images of an altercation between a crewmember and a passenger. The crewmember demanded she delete the photos, but the shutterbug balked. She was arrested and then released.

“Unrecoverable” service failure

Her story, and the latest photo altercation, are just two examples of what I call an unrecoverable service failure. How do you make up for something like that, even if you want to? Do you apologize? Add a few miles to the customer’s account? Refund the cost of the flight?

And there’s probably nothing a neutral mediator can say to improve the situation. It is what it is: an unfortunate and complete customer-service breakdown.

But as a student of failure, I’m here to tell you that these snafus can be a goldmine. Here’s why:

1. They’re a teachable moment for employees.

The worst service disasters often make the best learning opportunities. Assuming the United Airlines crewmember was out of line (I won’t do that, but feel free to draw your own conclusions) then this is the kind of case that gets incorporated into crewmember training. How do you stop a photog who may be taking images of your other business-class passengers without also creating a scene? You can bet this won’t be the last time a blogger will try to snap photos of your seats. So how do you handle it? It’s better to get that information out to your workforce now than to sweep it under the rug and pretend it never happened.

2. They offer a brief platform to get your message out.

Maybe there’s no way to adequately say “I’m sorry” for booting a blogger off your flight, but that shouldn’t stop an airline from trying. In fact, massive meltdowns like this are a terrific opportunity to show that you do care. But time is short. In a 24-hour news cycle, United had a day or two at best to make things right, and it didn’t act. Even issuing a tepid apology would have counted for something. Instead, it returned to its time-honored tradition of hoping the problem would go away, a la United Breaks Guitars. Remember that?

3. They offer customers a clear idea about how they should expect to be treated.

The biggest beneficiaries of a complete service failure and its aftermath are customers. Not only are we offered a front-row seat to the event and its immediate aftermath, but we also get a pretty clear idea of what might happen to us if we were to give that company our business. If you’re a passenger concerned with your privacy, that might be good news. If you’re worried about authoritarian flight attendants taking a power trip at your expense, it might be bad news. Either way, the company has shown us how it might handle future altercations of this type — and that’s profoundly helpful.

A few years ago, we had a slew of scholarly articles and books that celebrated failure. In the final analysis, I thought this emerging genre of business books was stupid. No one likes to fail, and pretending it’s a good thing is just silly.

But when it comes to customer service, I’m willing to make an exception. Service failures can make a company better and they can make customers more informed.

No one should aim to fail, of course, but maybe the real failure would be if we failed to learn from it.