Skies Not So Friendly

by Dave Michels
United Breaks Guitars

I use United Airlines frequently in my presentations and writing as my favorite example of what not to do. I sometimes think that United is some diabolical experiment in long term customer abuse. Evidently, I am not alone. In United Airlines earns spot on most disliked companies list, the people have spoken and agreed with me. The list was dominated by airlines, utilities, and banks. There wasn’t a lot of explanation, so we are left to imagine which behaviors customers find the most offensive. There’s so many to choose from:

  • Economy Plus: It’s a nice idea, but honestly there’s a bit too much leg room there. Of course, that’s not the problem – it’s the remaining economy seats that are completely unbearable as a result.
  • The stupid little carpet and separate entrances to the jetway. It’s kind of a crowded area already – optimized for a single entrance. But the way the police it – don’t even think about stepping on that rug if you are not part of the chosen class.
  • Fees for checked bags. I get it, revenue. But WTF? I rarely check bags – at least not intentionally. However, presumably because of this fee – everyone brings their crap on the plane. There is never enough room on the plane to fit everyone’s bags. Boarding takes so much longer on UA than say SouthWest that allows free checked bags because this silly ritual of passengers hunting for space, and then being forced to check their bags at the gate (now for free). I didn’t want to play the game (once I saw “boarding group 8”), so I tried to check the bag at the counter. Unfortunately, there it costs $25, so instead I lug it thru security and then gate check it AFTER the plane is full. That’s all bad enough, but two more key points. I am not opposed to checking my bag in principle, but I’ve had such a high rate of failure (with UA) that I work to avoid it on outbound flights. If UA wants to slow down the boarding process on their own flights that’s their prerogative. But as the biggest carrier in Denver, they are also slowing down everyone at TSA.
  • Boarding group 8. Really? how endearing. The boundary between valued customer and tolerated scum is somewhere around boarding group 6.
  • Mileage Plus. Plus what? All I get is miles – I can never use them. “Sorry, for non Premier members we only offer one flight a year to Detroit with standard Mileage Plus seats on it. Perhaps you would like to use your miles to shop with one of our partners?”
  • They have ruined forever a great American classic: Rhapsody in Blue by Gershwin.
  • Starbucks. I no longer consider Starbucks a premium brand.
  • Code Shares: Great idea, share your flight numbers with other airlines. Wait, why share? Just rename other flights with UA flight numbers so passengers will never know which terminals or security checks to use.
  • Guitars. United Breaks Guitars – the all time best example of how social media impacts a giant firm that doesn’t care.  Oops.
  • The UA Customer Contact center. Oxymoron, see below.

Usually when I talk about United, it’s their call center that I poke fun at. There is no finer example of technology gone awry than United’s Customer Uncontact Center. My appologies to the vendor United uses as I don’t mean to suggest your equipment is at fault. I don’t have problems with hearing the agents or getting disconnected – I have problems getting to an agent. United uses every trick to prevent human to human conversation. If a customer really wants to talk, they will endure it philosophy. Look how much we can save.

My favorite example is the warning that there may be a fee to talk to an agent – and they still don’t answer! I used to be loyal to United. My first telecom job required heavy travel between Seattle and Los Angeles. Mileage Plus was still kind of new. I worked the system, and truly was loyal to the brand. I now feel loyalty clubs are a big part of the problem. United earns repeat business by paying off its passengers with the idea of  free flights. The employer pays for the ticket – and the employee gets the reward (after about 10 trips in theory). It’s redistribution of wealth I say, and Glenn Beck should be all over this.

Loyalty clubs are a nice idea. In their basic form, they make perfect sense – reward customers in proportion to their loyalty and spend. Sometimes you see retailers with customer appreciation sales, but who’s to say the beneficiaries of such events are the best customers. However, the cost of administering, managing, and of course the free tickets themselves total to a non trivial amount. If only they can reduce that cost with automation and restrictions – tada. Still, the airlines spend a great deal of money on “loyalty” because it locks-in their customers.

For most UA travellers they are not rewards at all, imprisonment comes to mind as a better descriptor than loyalty. The customers pay higher rates, accept poor service, and compromise their preferred schedules. All for the illusion of free flights, which are the most restrictive super cheap flights anyway. It’s a bad trade. I swore off loyalty to UA several years ago, committing to never fly UA unless it had the best combination of fare and schedule. The result: I rarely fly them any more.  I concluded frequent flyer clubs are scams, but upon reflection I’m not so sure any more – some may be ok.

Lately, I’ve been flying Southwest and despite my walled resistance to loyalty, I’m becoming loyal. I like the no assigned seats. There’s always room for my carry-on. I like there’s no beverage carts that block the aisle. The seats have enough room that I can work on my laptop. The attendants are friendly. Many of their planes have wi-fi, and their concourses have comfortable seats with power. They are by no means perfect – the inability to fly standby on a cheap ticket seems silly. I honestly don’t know if Southwest is any good, or if they just look good. Who knows what constitutes a good airline with such crap for comparison? Near the top of the most disliked list includes American, US Air, and Delta.

The next generation of the contact center (trying to distance itself from the current generation) is all about customer experience or Customer Experience Management (CXM).

The concept of CXM picks up where CRM and CCTR left off. CRM attempts to centralize customer notes and Contact centers attempts to better serve customer interactions. But the customer experience is larger than that. Many of us are happily willing to discuss our satisfaction, but are reluctant to actually call customer service (I wonder why). CXM involves listening, and that’s hard enough for individuals and very hard for companies. Listening can take place in numerous ways. The obvious one is to listen on the phone, but that involves live answer agents – yikes. Live interactions don’t scale – writing a FAQ once or a application front end once gets used many times – they scale. Listening to customers can’t be smart, so last century.

Another way is to listen is via social networks. There’s two camps here: sales and customer service. Regarding airlines, BA has a new program that has staff building a dossier on their Business Class passengers. The information will include not only data the airline already possesses — like previous complaints or delays — but also information from Google Image searches. Theoretically, the flight crew can apologize for mistakes and be able to identify passengers in order to do so. I like the idea of airlines apologizing.

“We’re essentially trying to recreate the feeling of recognition you get in a favourite restaurant when you’re welcomed there, but in our case it will be delivered by thousands of staff to millions of customers. This is just the start — the system has a myriad of possibilities for the future,” Jo Boswell, head of customer analysis at BA, told the London Evening Standard.

The contact center is one area of telecom that I largely choose to ignore. The art and technology is fascinating, but the outcomes are generally highly frustrated customers. I think a businesses should just answer the damn phone. Businesses don’t realize that most customers don’t want to talk either. If I am actually calling United, it is safe to assume that I’ve exhausted all the self service options. I’m not calling to see if the plane is on-time, or what the price is to fly to Poughkeepsie. Adding insult to injury, the on-hold message keeps telling me to check the website – gee never thought of that. But, even if I was calling to see if the plane was on-time – so what? It’s an opportunity to differentiate – take the call.

I understand the airline business is very complex. That the industry is under pressure. I understand that passengers were unwilling to pay a bit more for better food, so the food went. But the industry crossed a line. They stopped respecting their customers. “We know you have a choice with airlines, and thank you for flying [fill in the blank].” It sounds admirable, but the loyalty programs have erased its meaning – the attendants don’t mean it when they say it.