Night & Day: The Story of United Airlines & Marriott Hotels...Respectively

I've just returned from a trip to Halifax Nova Scotia (a really excellent city BTW...but not what I want to write about) where my wife and I visited my niece, nephew-in-law and their two kids - a great family in fact.
Written by Paul Greenberg, Contributor

I've just returned from a trip to Halifax Nova Scotia (a really excellent city BTW...but not what I want to write about) where my wife and I visited my niece, nephew-in-law and their two kids - a great family in fact. In fact, if you're ever in Halifax, motor on down to Finbar's which is their restaurant in Bedford, a nearby suburb of the main city.  Family prejudices aside, really well worth for the quality of the food, and the ambiance of the place...and, prejudices incorporated...for the owners.  Just remember this menu item -- boxty.  No more said about that.

In any case, getting to Halifax and staying in Halifax are the subject of this post because  the experience of getting to the city via United was a nightmare...hence, "night" in the title...and the experience of staying in Halifax at the Marriott Harbourside was just plain great...hence "day" in the title.

Get it? If not, stop reading and go home.

Before I get into the details, I just want to clarify something.  I don't write to gripe...well, not much anyway. Once thing I've learned in all my years in CRM, there is something to be learned in everything. So what I try to do, even when I'm entirely p.oed is to pull something worthwhile out that I can store in my prefrontal cortex (metaphorically, of course, though I do believe that's where long term memory is stored according to""="">).  Just being totally angry at some institution, while it feels cathartic and good while its happening (c'mon, you know it does), really doesn't accomplish much beyond leaving you drained and satisfied, though really good sex does that so much better.  But, if you can analyze the results and extract the lessons, then there is value even in the meltdown. That's universal. But if the subject that caused the meltdown doesn't learn from it, then they continue to be a problem and the chances are the issues are more than momentary. Likely, they are cultural - different set of problems. But in the interim, a future and maybe best practice can be extrapolated from it.

In the case of a good or great story, the lessons to be learned are also universal -and what makes the story great is that there is a reasonable chance they are both externally reproducible and internally, are already being reproduced. So here, the subject becomes the example of what to do, instead of the problem and what not to do.  My job is to figure all this out. Which I try to do and make the story more valuable then just a really cool story if good and a "okay, when you're done venting, I've got something else to vent about" story when its bad.

Now on to the story and the lessons learned.

The Night

Yvonne and I got up at 4:30am on Friday morning to get to Dulles airport to catch a United Flight directly to Halifax on one of those United Express Embraer 170 regional jets.  Unfortunately, even though Dulles is only 20 miles away, we have to travel in rush hour which means the trip could be an hour or more just to get to the airport. But, hey, NP on this one. Its just the "cost of doing business" for traveling in our area. Got there at 6:30am for an 8:20am flight.   So far, so good.

But roughly at 7:45am, I got an alert on my HTC Thunderbolt saying that the flight was delayed to 9:15am. No reason.  Then 5 minutes later it went up on the board at the gate that the flight was delayed for operational reasons. The United desk attendant simply announced the delay and said we would board at 9:15am.  No other info.

Then at 9:00am the boarding countdown started, 10 minutes...9....8....7.....4....3....2.....1.  Nothing.

Alert on phone... Flight being delayed until 10:00am.

Up on the board. 10:00am. Operations.

Announcement from United gate attendant. Same. No further information.

This went on and one in the same pattern with no information until customers on the flight went to the customer service desk and found out WE HAD NO CAPTAIN!  They didn't have anyone to fly the plane and the gate attendant in the interests of being crappy didn't bother to tell anyone anything and instead of announcing this early, they were allowing the boarding countdown to happen until it hit zero before it finally changed.

To compound this incredible lack of communication and continuous raising  and dashing hopes were the following horrible practices.

0.    My wife asked the gate attendant to make a general announcement to the people in the waiting area, since she didn't tell anyone anything unless they went up to her and asked.  In fact, she explicitly asked her to tell the waiting crowd that there was no captain and that it was unclear as to when there would be one. She said she would and instead just announced the delay all over again, leaving out the important details that most of the passengers didn't know, not allowing them to plan a thing including possible alternate flights or even leaving the area to go eat food.

  1. I began to tweet out the problem with the hashtag #united and there was literally no response whatever from United, which indicates that either they have no one monitoring Twitter, a strategic customer service error of significant proportions or this was of no concern to those who were - not enough to merit a response, at least. A tactical error or a really bad practice all in all.  Though we got some really funny responses like this one from Alcatel Lucent Social Customer Service guru and resident CRM industry national humorist Charlie Isaacs:
  2. THEY HAD NO PILOT! Clearly, given that we later found out the pilot-to-be had fallen sick and they had to find a substitute - who they pulled from an incoming flight - we could have lived with that if they told us the problem and the reason for it from the beginning and they had a backup plan in place that would have fostered a smooth transition to a substitute pilot.  But they had no pilot, they had no communication, they had no backup plan that was apparent, in any case.

Finally, several passengers went to the customer service desk and told them of this incredible lack of communications and they called the gate attendant and forced her to do a general announcement about the actual problem. And they found a pilot and we got to Halifax about three hours late.

The Followup

United did come back to, I presume, all the passengers on the flight with a "we're really sorry" followup a day later and offered 7000 non-status counting miles, $150 e-discount or 10% off an economy class flight.  Which is nice, but the mistakes had already been made and could have been avoided.

The Lessons

Lesson #1 - The irony is that the lesson for United here is the most basic of all. What was infuriating wasn't the delay per se - though for me this was just part of the expected lateness of United flights (average time late recently 2-3 hours)  - and they didn't have a captain which was novel to say the least. What made this an incredibly bad experience, miles and discounts after the fact, notwithstanding, was that United didn't communicate the problem or the reason for it or the uncertainty of the solution to the problem until they were forced to by very disgruntled passengers.  All they had to be is frigging honest. Sure they would have still had upset passengers, but not to anywhere near the level that their obfuscating behavior caused.  Treat your passengers like adults. Why? Because they are.

Lesson #2 - Either monitor your Twitter channel (#united in case you can't figure it out,  United VP of Customer Experience, if the title still exists there.), or if you are, fire the entire group that's doing it now and put in a responsive group. This is the era of social customers United. There are   millions of people actively communicating about the companies they love to hate, and, you are one of those.  I know that ultimately, your shareholders weren't badly affected by "United Breaks Guitar", so, probably, in your eyes, it was a merely humiliating blip on the radar screen.  But it did cost you $180 million instead of the replacement of the guitar which would have cost you, what? $1200?


You don't only have shareholders, you have stakeholders, including your passengers, your employees and all others who are affected in some way directly by your actions and example as a company. Stakeholders may not all own your company's stock, but ultimately in the long term, they determine its price.  The consequences of not instituting practices that incorporate honest communication when there are problems is far more damaging to you in the long run than United Breaks Guitars ever will be.

Many of those stakeholders communicate in social channels like Twitter, Facebook, Flyertalk etc. If you're not monitoring and responding with immediate response times like say Virgin America does, then people like me who are active in those channels and your Elite fliers, may start thinking "hmmm, Virgin America or Jet Blue are starting to sound really good to me" In other  words, the cost of leaving is finally low enough to, well, jet.

The Good

We stayed at the Marriott Harbourfront Hotel down on the waterfront in Halifax. I'm a Marriott Platinum Elite So from time to time, I take a personal and professional look at the Marriott treatment of Elite status - obviously Platinum more than any other - programs and report my findings to the Marriott loyalty folks. For me, because I understand what they  expect, what the standards are and how they work, the variances are actually a real study in how loyalty programs at large enterprises with multiple venues are interpreted and executed.

Thus, I spend a LOT of time at Marriott hotels and I have even developed a routine which I won't go into here on what I'm looking for in how they handle the program.

Not only was I pleasantly surprised by how the Marriott Harbourfront in Halifax handled the Platinum Elite members (me) but see them as a paradigm on how it should be handled as a set of best practices for hospitality industry advocacy.  I'm going to break it down at a high level so you can see what I saw:

  1. When my wife and I arrived I was immediately acknowledged as a Platinum Elite status member (I had entered that # when I put in my reservations).  While I personally don't care about that, it is an important practice because its an acknowledgment of the effort it takes to become one and that they are valued and special.
  2. I was handed a "Welcome" letter in an envelope to be opened when I got to the room. The letter was a profuse (but not saccharine) thank you for being a Platinum and here's how to reach us.
  3. I was then told about my room and the concierge lounge and its location. Our room was on the same floor as the concierge lounge to make it more convenient for us to use it.  Since it was a weekend and Marriott's concierge lounges are closed by policy  on the weekend until 5pm Sundays, they, unlike some other Marriotts, gave us breakfast vouchers to cover a very good buffet for Saturday and Sunday as a "sorry, the lounge is closed" substitute.
  4. Once it was clear we understood all that and had the vouchers in our hands, they offered us free valet parking and a $25 PetroCanada gas card. Now, we didn't have a car, but, my wife's brother and his wife were with us, hadn't checked in yet, and they did have a car and were going to be driving us around so I asked if it were possible to have my brother-in-law getting the free daily valet parking (normally $19.95 Canadian a day) and the card. Without a second thought or any hesitance, Pat (the staffer taking care of us) said "of course" asked their name and she made the notes so that it could be registered to him when they registered. No hesitance  Just accommodating.
  5. Because I realized that I was going to be writing this at some point, I went and asked some questions the next day, among them, since there clearly were a lot of business travelers who might not have a car, was there a backup set of gifts for the Platinum Elites among those.  "Of course. If we can't personalize something, we can always provide the standard gifts list that most of the Marriotts provide. We ask a few questions, see if there is something special we can do, and if not, we pull out the list."
  6. When we got to the room, within an hour, they had called up to find out how we found the room. Yvonne (my wife) told them that there was some dust and maybe even mold that she smelled. Within another hour, they had a crew up  (we left) and fixed the problem. They then called again to find out if it was okay and the next day the head of housekeeping, Ryan, asked us if things were okay.
  7. In general, the staff was always friendly and greeted everyone walking through the lobby. They were highly professional and just plain nice in their approach.  Not only didn't we have an issue, but the level of attention they gave to the Elite status members was exceptional. My brother-in-law's car was stocked each day with 2 bottles of cold water.  Our rooms were always stocked with bottles of water. Standard to all Elite members is free internet connectivity which otherwise is $16 Canadian a day (same goes in the U.S for that).

Lessons all in all

Three things.

  1. The Marriott Harbourfront has a clear "customer first" commitment that is so ingrained in their culture - at least the culture of this specific Marriott hotel, that the overall experience is both exceptional and warm. I literally felt like this was the right place to be.  You know that feeling, right?  Or am I nuts?
  2. They have a repeatable set of well thought-out practices that are not just based on the goodness of a single staff member. They are extensible to all staff and each staff member. If one starts the process, another can finish it. The knowledge doesn't go away if someone quits.  They've institutionalized a culture that drove the development of best practices that are both creative and clearly part of the staff's collective and individualized knowledge.
  3. Perhaps, most importantly (PAY ATTENTION UNITED!), they communicated clearly and honestly from the very beginning of the engagement between the customer and the staff  - me, Yvonne and Pat the staff member.  That meant that by the time I started wheeling my suitcase away from the desk and to the elevator, I knew precisely what to expect and what not to expect - and that this company valued me as a Elite customer - and a customer in general.

So there you have it. Night and Day.  As Charlie Isaacs said, when it comes to United, "United breaks guitars - and promises."  As far as the Marriott Harbourfront goes, well, all you can say is "well played, Marriott Harbourfront, well played."

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