• May 26, 2017
  • By Marshall Lager, founder and managing principal, Third Idea Consulting; contributor, CRM magazine

Waiter, There’s a Frog in My Soup

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An old fable tells us the way to boil a live frog: If you put it in boiling water, it will jump out immediately, but if you put it in tepid water and slowly raise the temperature, it will stay until it’s too late. The story is false—much to the relief of frogs everywhere—but it’s an apt metaphor for human behavior. Sudden change is easy to spot and resist, but incremental shifts can add up before we even notice, let alone take action.

For proof we need only look to the air travel industry in general, and our old pal United Airlines in particular. Every few years, United does something awful to remind us that air travel is a heartless business recognizing no values not preceded by a dollar sign, and this reminder typically comes in the form of customer harm. In 2009 it was the “United Breaks Guitars” fiasco; in 2017 it is the passenger-dragging incident.

Incident summary: United overbooked a flight—as every carrier does—but needed to ferry some personnel to the plane’s destination. When offers of compensatory travel vouchers failed to tempt any passengers to give up their seats, United chose to “involuntarily re-accommodate” four people. Three of the bumped passengers left without incident. Dr. David Dao, the fourth, refused to leave and was dragged from the plane by security, suffering injuries in the process. Naturally, passenger video of the incident went public, becoming a viral sensation.

Shock! Outrage! Snarky memes on Facebook! Of course, the reason we took note of the United incident was that it got physical. Passengers are bumped every day, in great numbers, because (as I mentioned above) every airline overbooks its flights. While it’s pretty rare for people to be removed from a plane after boarding, it can happen. [Ed note: In the wake of this incident, airlines are re-examining the practice of overbooking, though incidents are still being reported.]

Being treated as less important than United personnel in this situation is a small to medium indignity (minus the violence), heaped upon the ever-increasing pile of minor complaints about airlines that has been accumulating for decades. Smaller seats, less room, higher prices, bad food, no food, pay for your food, poor service, and TSA Security Theater are just the ones I can think of—some comics build their acts entirely around complaining about air travel.

Much as the frog story is apocryphal—frogs boil just fine when thrown into the hot pot, but good luck trying the gradual method—so too is the idea humans will resign themselves to anything: We will put up with a lot, but usually only so much. Another handy metaphor for this is the straw that broke the camel’s back—we are a cruel species, we humans—or, as Popeye would say, “That’s all I can stands, I can’t stands no more!”

A personal situation lately has brought home to me the difference between jumping into boiling water and sitting in a slowly heating pot. Many years ago, after gaining some weight, I developed sleep apnea. Like many conditions, apnea sneaks up on you until something happens to make you wonder what’s wrong. My somethings included falling asleep while driving (dangerous) and during a vendor presentation (hugely embarrassing). Once I started treatment (a machine and mask to use when I sleep), my life went back to normal so fast I was amazed I had gotten by as long as I had.

Many years later—this year, actually—my machine broke, and you can’t get a new one without a prescription and testing. Remedying the problem is taking longer than I’d like, and as soon as I was without my magic therapy box, the symptoms came whizzing back like somebody releasing a bow string. I can’t stay awake, I can’t concentrate, I have no energy, and once again I wonder how I managed to function all those years ago, because I can’t now. But you can bet the second I found myself without what I needed, I started taking steps to get it back.

We fight against what we can’t tolerate, unless we’re acclimated to it a little at a time. It’s important to cry foul when something unacceptable happens, but we’ve also got to keep our eye on just what it is we consider acceptable, and not compromise it lightly.

Marshall Lager is a senior analyst on Ovum’s customer engagement team, currently on zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. Zzzzzzzzzzz zzzzzzzzzzz at www.3rd-idea.com, or www.twitter.com/Lager.

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