Deconstructing United Airlines: Where Customers are Transactions

Summary:United Airlines: Customers are Merely TransactionsIf you're a loyalty marketer and look at my United profile, you find something that would make you 4.5 on a scale of 5.

United Airlines: Customers are Merely Transactions

If you're a loyalty marketer and look at my United profile, you find something that would make you 4.5 on a scale of 5.0 when it comes to warm and fuzzy.   You'd see hundreds of thousands of United Airlines frequent flier (FF) miles; a pattern that suggests that I fly exclusively, including client bookings by their travel agencies on United for me; you'd see signing up for dozens of promotions; you'd see using hotel loyalty cards to get United FF miles in the place of hotel points; you'd see me flying United partners Star Alliance airlines whenever I can't fly United. You'd also see about 50-75,000 miles per year over the past few years.  I'd look like a very loyal United flyer.

I've been Premier Executive for a few years, which means that I flew 50,000 miles or more each year.  But in 2008, I had a horrible auto accident in August that limited my flying to virtually none for the rest of the year.   As a result I flew 36,000 miles which brought me down a notch to Premier.   But by November 2008, I was okay and I had booked and paid for 26,000 more miles of flying from January 4 though Feb 15, 2009.

That sets the stage.  Oh, one other thing. United's timeframe for determining FF status is from January 1 through December 31.  Status privileges run from March 1 through February 28.

In any case, as late November 2008 rolled around,  I received a letter in the mail from United Airlines. In effect, it said:

"Hey, we see that you only have 36,000 miles this year which will make you a Premier rather than a Premier Executive flyer.  Tell you what, you give us $2300.00 and we will give you the additional 14,000 miles that you need to be Premier Executive.  How about that?"

I swear. They wanted me to pay $2300.  I was....incensed...and I'm only saying "incensed" because of my PG-13 rated worldview.  I mean, can this approach be much more disgusting....and, for that matter, out of touch with the reality of a customer?

But, then the real question is what should have happened?

If I were United's Vice President of Customer Experience (I believe that they've had four of those in five years though don't hold me to that exact number), I would have an algorithm or two that would pretty much spit out the same info as they had. But then I would have had a plan to address the issue that wasn't "send us $2300."  It would go something like this:

"Hey, we see that you only have 36,000 miles this year which will make you a Premier rather than a Premier Executive flyer.  We're concerned. What happened that caused you to fly so much less?"

Let's assume I made the choice to respond to United and told them what happened. At the point I understood that Paul's Acura had stood in the way of his flying in 2008, if I were United, I would also check to see what Paul's history is and future bookings are.  Then, as United, I probably would notice that Paul Greenberg had paid for 26,000 more miles for January and February. In other words, traveling that much before his 2008 official Premier Executive privileges ran out.  Then I, United, would send another note in this spirit:

"Hey again. Since you've been a Premier Executive flyer for a few years and you couldn't help your circumstances and you've already paid for 26,000 more miles which would total 62,000 miles by the time your privileges run out, we'll take a chance on you not canceling those bookings (PG note: I didn't cancel) and extend your Premier Executive flyer privileges another year. We're very sorry about your accident."

They didn't do that but instead insulted me with their "offer" to let me pay.  Rather than me moving a bit closer to being an advocate, the result I truly dislike United.  Though my loyalty numbers don't show that, do they?

Lesson #1 For United: What Should Have Transpired

The key to this isn't the offer to keep me Premier Executive for another year. That isn't that significantly different than Premier when it comes to rewards. It's the note to me asking "what happened?"  Rather than the:

"Hey, we don't really care that something might have happened to  you to break your recent historic patterns, we are only interested in getting something from you in return for letting you 'keep' the privilege of your status."

Contemporary customers demand some sort of human or at least seemingly human interaction with the companies that they frequent for more than a utility purchase. United still sees customers as transactions.  Thus, I look entirely loyal because of my "transaction numbers" e.g. amount of miles etc.  But my behavior is driven by inertia - the cost of my investment and the cost of change outweighs the effort I can afford to give it now. My emotions are driven by disgust for the very company I look loyal to.  AND, because I have a wide number of venues to write for and speak at etc. every year, I get to use United as a lesson in what not to do when it comes to engaging customers in front of what amounts to hundreds of thousands of people. Not exactly good but you wouldn't know from the numbers.

Yet Another United "Customers are Transactions" Story......

A dear friend of mine is a Senior VP at a major government contractor here in Washington D.C.  She passed on this United story - in fact the trigger for writing this piece.

"Hi Paul....If you recall...last year there was a problem with one of the so called "customer vouchers" for my son. It was issued to my son when they had delayed his flight (their errors) for about 10 hours.   When I called about the voucher being basically impossible to use (required to physically go to an airport and present it versus use it online), United gave me the run-around, I asked to speak to a supervisor....and UNITED transferred me to American Airlines.

Well...now they have changed their frequently flyer program and cancelled his points.  Now cancelled in 18 months vs 2 years.  I spoke to a manager...and got the run-around again.  Bottom line zero points.  Oh yes....for $350 they will re-instate his 25,000 points.

The United Customer Service Supervisor said they changed the rules for frequent flyer points in January 2007...reducing from 2 years to 18 months. In January 2007, (The boy) was a Junior in high school. He was not keeping track of United's frequent flyer changes. I don't keep track, because unfortunately - I fly them. He lost a round-trip on United that he could have used to visit his Grandmother. Verbally they said we could buy the points back for .0125 per frequent mile PLUS an administrative fee - but we can only do this online. My head is spinning. Gee - maybe I could use the $150 voucher that I can only use at the airport toward this - ha ha ha.

United gets a grade of F for customer satisfaction.  They really don't care - I say....let's all go fly Southwest.  They care about their customers."

United Lesson #2: What Should Have Transpired

There's so much wrong with what United did here.

First, transferring the customer, out of pique one can only presume, to American Airlines, is problem #1.  Second making the use of a voucher difficult rather than easy is problem #2. Then cancelling a kid's points and then saying, "oh, we'll reinstate for $350," is problem #3.

Wow.

Its easy to make the case - at least easy for United - of "well, them's the rules, boys and girls. You gotsta follow the rules. The timeframe for use of FF points was over." And, if customers are transactions they may be right. But sometimes, the human circumstances and reality (a reality that of course United banks on), merit an interaction rather than a transaction - meaning, you find out that most people aren't that aware of rules changes and there had been a lot of grief and angst associated with the chain of activity on this particular situation, calls for a bending of the rules.

What the problem is here is not necessarily just a bad set of circumstances with a customer.  There was a bit of this that was just outright stupid - the transfer to American Airlines instead of a supervisor.  But most of this is due to a rigid set of broken procedures.

First things first - there needs to be a way to use the voucher online. United makes a point of encouraging the use of online reservations as a cost savings measure for them and a benefit to the customer - and online Easy Check-in is one of the few good things about United.  However, making it impossible to use the voucher online goes against what they want to begin with and only makes it more difficult for the customer to use a benefit that they got in return for something that was a discomfort to the passenger to begin with.

Second - Given the particular circumstances, someone should have been made available to the customer who was empowered to restore the points.  No one is saying do it uniformly, but, United, you need to remember that customers are looking for personalized treatment and when a circumstance that allows it arises, be smart enough to be flexible - rather than looking like an organization that, once again, sees the customer as a transaction.  The answer here should have been, "okay, this once, we can restore the points, given everything else that happened, but it is an 18 month limit now and please be aware of that for the future." Rather than "it'll cost you $350.00" - apparently a familiar theme.

And Yet Again: United's Broken Guitar - The One We All Watched

I think we're all familiar now with "gone-viral-on-YouTube" video "United Breaks Guitars" which has gotten over (there is no past tense on YouTube only past perfect) 4.8 million hits since it went up.   Here it is if you haven't seen it. I don't like country, but I did like this. It was amazing enough that it took  United more than a year after the guitars had been broken and numerous complaints and a refusal to pain as their final answer originally to finally agree to pay for the broken instruments.  Which Dave Carroll of the Sons of Maxwell (the Nova Scotia based country group that had the guitars broken) didn't want and had donated to charity.  But that wasn't enough.  Listen to this incredibly lame response from United:

"'While we mutually agree this should have been fixed much sooner, Dave's excellent video provides us with something we can use for training purposes to ensure that all customers receive better service for us,' spokeswoman Robin Urbanski told the (Chicago Sun Times)."

Not the response you wanted to hear.

United Lesson #3

The only thing I could call this "official" response is cowboy bootlicking contrition - it sounds insincere and actually doesn't address the problem. While its great they are going to use the video to train, what about the processes and the hiring policies that led to this happening in the first place. A humorous video that gained a lot of attention isn't the training I want to be giving. It may be funny to watch and a nice little public relations ploy, but as a customer, I'd rather hear about how they were overhauling their customer service policies given the number of complaints they get on a daily basis. And the massive mistrust that they continually engender. But then, that's just me.

What United should have done here is pretty obvious. Pay for the f---ing guitar when it broke, not when it became the subject of a clever viral video. The damage was done by that time. Additionally, they should announce significant changes to their customer service training and policy and be transparent about them.

What United seems to be overlooking in their training mea culpa is that not only was it broken due to gross mishandling by some employees apparently, but they refused to pay for it - a management decision. This video being used in training doesn't change their policy.  Which simply should be if they break it they should pay for it.

And Another.....

This one is short and sweet. Last fall, their Chief Customer Officer, Graham Atkinson, left United and Dennis Cary became the Chief Customer Officer.

United Lesson #4

Unfortunately, for United, Dennis Cary is already their Chief Marketing Officer. The fact that they are combining the two positions is another egregious example of their incredible lack of understanding of customers.  CCO and CMO are NOT positions that live in a single human body. They have vastly different purposes and can even be at odds.  This is nothing disparaging to Mr. Cary. I don't know him so I'm not speaking to his qualifications for either job. But he shouldn't have both. A Chief Customer Officer is, when appropriately tasked, to engage customers in the kinds of interactions that make them advocates of the company at a programmatic and policy level. Those policy decisions and "rule bending" that we're talking about are a CCO's responsibility - and should be as far away from marketing as possible.  The irony is that the message that the combined positions sends is that to United customers are nothing more than objects of marketing. Transactions again.   You'd think marketing would figure that out.....

Finally....One of the Worst

What makes this final United story totally ironic in addition to being a serious problem is that it happened to my wife and mother in law yesterday as they were heading to St. John's Newfoundland via Montreal beginning at Dulles.  In other words, while I was writing this.

To put it simply.  My mother-in-law is 86 and needs a wheelchair to travel.  United is required to have a wheelchair, if requested, available to her at the gate when she leaves the plane.  We requested the wheelchair at Dulles airport, they called it ahead.  According to Air Canada, United should have finished the request so that she was covered when she got to Montreal and then St. Johns.

Well, there were delays due to mechanical issues on the flight to Montreal and they got in but were unable to make their connection (they had a 15 minute window after they landed). One of the reasons, aside from the incredibly short time was that there was no wheelchair waiting for my mother-in-law and ultimately they didn't really have one for her. My mother in law of course was discomfited by this whole fiasco. My wife managed to commandeer a wheelchair later without United's help. An Air Canada representative was good enough to help them and told them that the flight attendants on United are aware of special needs passengers as are the ground personnel and since it was going to be delayed obviously, the United ground personnel should have made sure that a wheelchair was waiting despite the delay. There wasn't one and not much interest in helping them either.

United Lesson #5

Aside from don't mess with my family, United should have done what they should always do.  Accommodate change. If there is a special needs passenger known to them and a problem that they cause one way or the other, then they need to make sure that there is a smooth and seamless transition so that the customers aren't discomfited.  Not that big a game plan for that. It would have taken a phone call to say, "hey, there is this special needs passenger on the flight to Montreal. The fight is 2.5 hours delayed. Can you makes sure that we still have a wheelchair waiting?" Not that tough to figure out.

In Sum

The heading of this final section is ironic. Because "a sum" is exactly how United views its customers. Its why United is continually one of the lowest in customer satisfaction surveys and is beaten up continually in the cybersphere.   They are going to need a fundamental culture shift to recognize that the customer - the social customer - is looking to have them provide the kind of experience that excites them to be associated with United rather than repulses them.  So Dennis Cary, stop looking at the numbers that your loyalty people throw at you and instead talk to your customers in a serious concerted way and then, listen to them.

I'd love to lay out a few of them here, but why should I? Hmmm, maybe for $2300 I'll do it so I can afford to be Premier Executive again.....

Topics: CXO, IT Employment

About

In addition to being the author of the best-selling CRM at the Speed of Light: Social CRM Strategies, Tools, and Techniques for Engaging Your Customers Paul Greenberg is President of The 56 Group, LLC, a customer strategy consulting firm, focused on cutting edge CRM strategic services and a founding partner of the CRM training company, BP... Full Bio

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