Lessons in Customer Service: I Come to Praise United, Not to Bury It

United Airlines has hardly been a paradigm of excellent customer service. Most of the time they do what could only be called a nasty job of it. However, once in awhile, in adverse circumstances, in context, they get it right and it becomes a lesson in how to do something successfully.
Written by Paul Greenberg, Contributor

One of the most highly read posts of my ZDNet life was this post on United Airlines which I wrote last April when they lost my bags in Toronto.  I wasn’t happy and it generated what is almost the “usual” outrage against beleaguered airlines and particularly the always targeted United. 

Well, they lost my bags again.

Uh oh, you may be thinking, he’s going to ream their….he’s going to  go after them again and there will be massive griping and more customer service lessons to be learned (which is always the reason for posts, not the incident.  I’m a customer strategy guy, not a professional complainant). 

Wellllll, here’s how that breaks down:

  1. Go after them – NO
  2. Griping – That comes from comments so have no idea
  3. Customer Service Lessons – YES

This comes because I’m going to actually praise United for something that would be easy, if you’re shortsighted, to rip them a new one for. 

The Story

A couple of weeks ago, I was in Mexico City, keynoting the Mundo Contact CRM conference (around 800 attendees) – a conference that I loved totally. Mundo Contact is a great content creation and curation company in Mexico; Solvis Consulting – a key sponsor is a winner of CRM Watchlist 2012 (2013 is still in the judging stage) and the home base of Latin American CRM thought leader Jesus Hoyos and the crowd was actually awesome and involved and of course, an amazing looking group of professionals. 

All went swimmingly for me.  I spoke on customer engagement, customer experience, Social CRM and was on fire that day if I do say so myself so I was feeling really good).  Even a glitch as the conference wrapped up – an unlocked and jailbroken old iphone of mine that I was using in Mexico was stolen in a two minute window I left it on a table, didn’t dampen the incredible warmth of the whole event over the two days I was there. 

The next morning I went to the airport – left at 6:00am and was there at 6:30am for a 10am takeoff on a United direct flight from Mexico City to Washington Dulles that was due to land at around 3pm Eastern Time.  I am 1K so I had no problems with check-in, was upgraded to first class.  All continued to be good.

Here’s the bare facts of what happened next with no context (key phrase here so please remember for later on – no context):

  1. The flight was delayed more than 5 hours
  2. When I got to Washington Dulles they had lost my bag - which I found out after a 20 minute wait at baggage claim after passing through immigration.

That’s why I said just a few minutes ago that you would be thinking “uh oh.”  But in fact, there are some important lessons to be learned and thoughts to be had about why I said “NP” – meaning “no problem,” instead.

The Context

First thing to know here is that unlike the trip to Toronto that lost my bag, I was heading home, not going to my destination.  I had an upcoming trip about 4 days later to San Francisco and Seattle so I needed what was in the bag then but I wasn’t in a situation that I couldn’t replace the items without considerable cost. I was home; I could bring other clothes and other toiletries etc.  So the context for the anxieties over lost bags was different.  I was at the end not the beginning (Thank you Jeff Nolan for pointing that out).

Second, the delay was caused by a weird smell coming from the plane in the cabin and cockpit when we were on the runway and the Captain, who stayed in constant both general and personal contact with the passengers, decided that rather than the slightest risk of any safety problem he would bring the plane back in. When they couldn’t easily find the source of the problem, they had to bring technicians onto the plane to rip apart panels and find the problem, which forced us to deplane and wait in the terminal.  The Captain took full responsibility for the delay, kept everyone informed about the progress and never wavered in his reasoning and presented that reasoning well – and he was a very good guy.

Third, there were a significant number of “clearly going to miss connections” passengers and United deplaned them before everyone else so that they could rebook all who were going to have that problem.   They quite effectively not only took care of all of those, but also those who didn’t want to “risk” getting back on the plane. They accommodated every single person who had to or wanted to change flights in a significantly short time given that this number was more than half the plane. 

Fourth, while finally back on the plane they offered compensation ranging from miles to $200 off the next flight to every inconvenienced passenger – all of us – via a URL that we had to visit to get compensated. 

The actual flight home was pleasantly drama free.

When we landed my bag didn’t show up on the baggage carousel.  So I went to a desk several feet from the carousel in the international baggage claim area and they scanned my luggage tag and they found it was on a plane – not to Los Angeles but from Los Angeles. That’s still a bit of a head scratcher – how did it get from Mexico City to LA -  though I have a theory.    They sent me over to a baggage claim desk right past Customs and I filed my claim.  They showed me that it was going to appear at Dulles at 12:15am and I could have it delivered by the afternoon of the next day  or wait for it. I chose the latter. 

They then gave me a sheet with URLs, phone numbers and claim numbers to track the bag.  

I went home.

I received an email from wheresmysuitcase.com that said here was the information I needed – links etc. – to follow my bag. From that night around 10pm when I got into my house until the bag was delivered I was not only notified automatically (via email) of the bag’s status, I had information like the picture of the driver, a phone number and an email for the driver I could use while he/she was enroute and a GPS tracked map that showed me where the driver was at any given time.  As it got closer to delivery time, the driver called to narrow the time window and eventually came and delivered the bag.

The Lessons

Just on the basis of raw information, I should be furious.  I was delayed five hours and was really tired (having been at the airport nearly 4 hours early too) and my bag was lost. 

But I wasn’t.  Why is that? 

Look, given the millions of bags handled by airlines all day every day, there are bound to be some that are lost.  Given that we are dealing with airplanes, which are mechanical contrivances, there are bound to be issues. Sometimes one leads to another; both converge.   But context is everything and how you handle the problems when they arrive is everything else.  

A great service experience can be how you handle a problem when it arises. 

In this case, United handled it perfectly.

Think about it:

  1. At all times during the 5 hour delay we were informed actively by the Captain of what was transpiring and why it was transpiring.  The key is the “why.”  He gave us a reasonable explanation, which made the passengers feel that there was a good reason for the delay – not just the usual crap you get from the airlines when there are delays.  In contrast, remember this experience I wrote about with United on my way to Halifax Nova Scotia where we had delays because there was no pilot and the gate staff REFUSED to tell us why we were delayed even though she knew the reason.
  2. When my baggage didn’t arrive, it was scanned and found immediately. So I knew it wasn’t lost, just misplaced, reducing the anxiety about it not being found immediately.  Remember in the post where they lost my bags on United to Toronto a few months ago, they had no way to track my bag so I didn’t know anything at all and was upset because I had no way of assessing what to do.
  3. The baggage delivery information was sent to me at continuous intervals from the time the claim was made until it was delivered and thus, it let me plan when I had to be home to accept the baggage. I didn’t have to guess and in fact, could have spoken with the driver if I needed to.

There is one HUGE overriding lesson for customer service in this experience with United. Keeping the customer informed throughout the process is mission- critical because it allows her/him to properly assess what to do with the information they are given. Communication is the key and always will be.

So, United, I never ever thought I’d say this but good for you.  If this is something I see repeated regularly, I’m going to think that you’ve turned a corner and, you know what, I’ll be glad. 

As far as I know.

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