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Once again into the breach...of trust: United Airlines manages to do it again

Cost efficiencies are fine, but not at the expense of the customers -- especially if it involves a serious service issue that can be at least mitigated by something that already had a proven benefit.
Written by Paul Greenberg, Contributor

I have been striving mightily the last few months to try and like United Airlines more.  I have been hoping, no, praying (and I'm not a praying man) that with the merger of Continental and United (which really was a United acquisition) that the habits of Continental would rub off on United to some extent - or rather the good habits would.  I have been taking a kinder eye where I can, acknowledging the things about United that I like:

  1. Economy Plus seats 5" of extra legroom, which I consider a HUGE plus.
  2. The reasonable number of upgrades I get for being a Platinum Frequent Flyer member with a company that has countless 1K members
  3. The personnel for the most part are nice, hardworking people, though like anywhere else you get the exceptions.
  4. The...uhhh....the Economy Plus seats - oh, um, I already said that.

I've even been willing to overlook things that I normally would let disturb me - partially due to attempt to like United more and partially due to my newly refined outlook on life that stems a bit from me taking up meditation a few months ago.  I won't go into what those are, in the spirit of Namaste.  Instead, I'll spend the time to go through my actual customer experience - not just to gripe (though admittedly a little venting is good for my soul right now) but from the standpoint of what seems to be a poor strategic decision and what is definitely terrible level setting when it comes to customer expectations.

The Story

As some of you know, I am the chairman of the Advisory Committee of the University of Toronto Rotman School of Management CRM Centre of Excellence - the only institution that is devoted to Social CRM or as Gen Y practitioners refer to it - CRM.

Part of my obligation to the University is to guest lecture as part of a three-day course on Social CRM that the University provides in its Executive Education series. That means a trip to Toronto, as least twice a year, to teach.

Of course, due to the cost of switching being so high, as much as I am disappointed by United, I fly United more often than not.  Last year of the 160,000 miles in the air I did, about 92,000, I think, were United.  So, I planned on a Monday trip up (that would be this week) so that I could teach on Tuesday morning.

Little did I realize...

Let's just abbreviate and say that the Monday flight was cancelled due to mechanical difficulties.

As I was being walked over to the counter that I was to be rebooked at, I was told by the United employee - "yeah, we had a lot of mechanical failures today." That of course was a great confidence builder.  But you know what, I can live with that happening. United is servicing thousands of planes. The fleet is going to have mechanical problems. I'm sure that on occasion they are going to cluster, due to the sheer volume of maintained airplanes and the coincidences in life that lead to things like noticeably more failures on one day than the next.  Reasonable, no?

Then they broke the news to me that the only time that I could fly out was 12:47pm the next day.  I said okay, since I really wasn't being given any choice but to take it or a later one or not fly. But I was not terribly happily, since that meant a major reorganization of all the instructors' schedules.  I was then told that I should leave my bag at the airport (this is on Monday) because, even though it was overnight, it would be transferred to the next day's flight (go out on Tuesday with me).  I asked for reassurances about this because, truthfully, it made me a little uncomfortable. They are going to be moving hundreds of thousands of bags between Monday evening and my flight on Tuesday afternoon.  My thinking was the longer that time passes, the more chance of the bag being lost. Maybe I was paranoid.

Maybe not.

The next day, I came back, refreshed, ready to take another crack at getting to Toronto. That lasted all of 15 minutes at the gate, when all of a sudden...delayed flight.

I sat for two more hours. We now could tally, one cancellation, one significant delay - all registering in my neurons and synapses in a distinctly unpleasant way. To add to that, I began wondering about my luggage since I had no knowledge of how successful United was of meeting the expectation they set with paranoid me the night before.  So,  I asked the gate agent about my bag being transferred and she said a strange thing, "oh yes it will be transferred. We wouldn't fly without your bag on the flight."  Maybe I misunderstood her? I distinctly remember thinking "huh?" So I said, trying to ignore the strangeness of that statement, "are you sure it will be transferred?" She said, "yes" again and I let it go.

Of course, even though I was assured twice and thus tried to let that be my anchor, bags can get lost and do. But the United personnel were setting my expectations of success with a process that I didn't totally trust so I decided to trust them.

After we boarded, we took off, got to Toronto without difficulty though two hours late. I sailed through immigration and went to get my bag, thinking "cool, this is easy. No problems from here on."

No bag.

No friggin' bag.  We were already two hours late and there was no bag on the luggage belt, which meant going through United baggage recovery. Even trying to be positive, reality was that I missed an important call because I was late getting there and then had to spend time trying to find out about my bag.  Another negative to fuel those firing neurons and synapses.

And It Gets Considerably Worse...

When I came to Toronto last November, my bag went AWOL then also. But, when I went to the United Baggage Desk,  they took my claim check and tracked the bag on their system, which allowed real time tracking, found out it was actually at the airport and would be out shortly so I waited and it was.

I figured that I would go to the baggage desk and do that again. I spoke to the United agent and he dutifully took my information down.  I asked him about tracking the bag and finding out where it was - expecting it would be the same real time effort as last November. How naïve am I?

Apparently, very.

"Oh, when we merged with Continental's system, we eliminated that capability. We were told that it would save us money." Meaning that the customer's peace of mind wasn't as important as the cost savings that United gained.  Some may say that's true.  Not only don't I say that but from my standpoint it goes to the heart of what Bruce Temkin, the leading customer experience analyst in the world, came up with in his State of Customer Experience Management study in 2011.   Only 17% of the respondents felt that executives would be willing to trade off short term financial results for long term customer loyalty.  Incidentally, this was looked at as a negative, not a positive, result.

I made it clear to the agent that I needed to have the bag before 6:00am the next morning, if they found it because I had to teach at the University and all I had was the clothes on my back which was jeans and a tee shirt, sneakers, etc.  I didn't really want to be wearing that same tee shirt the next day to present, know what I mean?

"We work on this 24X7 and deliver all the times of day and night.  We put luggage on a special delivery truck and will deliver it to the hotel."

Keep that comforting statement in mind because it set my expectations for delivery, should they find the bag. If they didn't. Okay, damage but understandable.

I went to the hotel after clearing customs and ran to Sears and bought a denim shirt and few other things just in case it didn't show up. So I would look okay at best even with the jeans on.

I began tracking the bag online with the URL they gave me and came to an ugly site with information that was partially understandable and partially cryptic.  (I still am unclear what FOF means when it comes to the delivery location).  Not terribly customer friendly given that it's the site they give to customers to go to track their bag.  After dinner with friends, I went to the room at about 11:30pm and saw that the bag had been "delivered to the airport." I had to presume it was Toronto Pearson though it didn't say that.  But they found it and it had been delivered and that meant I could get the back given my very explicit instructions and the promises that were given to me and the explanation of the 24X7 process and trucks etc.  All was not lost.

I checked throughout the night. Nothing. No update. Nothing. Just said the bag was "delivered to the airport."

At 7:00am the next morning I called the number and found out the following:

  1. The bag had been at the airport since 10:30pm the prior night.
  2. It was scheduled to be picked up by a courier service at 8:00am and brought to the hotel - after I had already left for the university.
  3. The agent told me that she wished she could do something but that baggage counter didn't open until 9:00am (this is 24X7?)

So, no clothes but what I was wearing and what I bought to teach in.  So much for the promise of 24X7 special delivery when it arrives - even with explicit instructions which I was led to believe would be honored.  Not ignored and made irrelevant.

The Delay Is Not Only the Flight

To make this somewhat more ridiculous.  Obviously the bag wasn't going to arrive until after I got to the university but it was in and scheduled to be delivered.

I had been tweeting heavily and kept directing the tweets toward @United. I had done this other times in the past and never gotten a response.  However, for the first time ever, they actually followed me (I'm one of 776 they are now following) responded to me asking me about the problem, getting the ticket # and asking how to contact me.  I sent them several Direct Messages explaining what was going on, why I was disturbed and told them that the pickup was scheduled. Ultimately, a few hours later, the contacted me again and said, "We've sent your information to our Baggage Resolution team. They'll reach out directly with an update."  The update was (to paraphrase) "glad to see  your baggage problem was taken care of" and a phone call voice message from the "elite baggage desk" that was asking me if it was resolved or seemed to be - it was kind of unclear really.

All of this would have been and even refreshing except it was so out of lockstep with what had already gone on.  By the time they "mobilized" on Twitter, the bag was already in my room. And I tried to find out if it had been delivered going to the tracking site in the afternoon but it hadn't been updated since the 8am pick up was posted.  Since I couldn't get the answer from United even after the bag got delivered despite my entreaties, late, I called the hotel and they told me it was in my room.


What's Wrong with This Picture?

What isn't wrong with it? There are two major issues.  The failure to set expectations and flawed customer strategy that broke a beneficial and well established process.

Flawed Strategy

When Jeff Smisek, the CEO of United and/or his minions, made the decision to put cost "effectiveness" ahead of customer peace of mind that was a fundamentally wrong decision (see Ray Wang for more on this kind of decision making by United).  Especially since it was a featured part of United's value to customers to begin with. I know that there was an internal discussion during the earlier phases of the merger to possibly eliminate Economy Plus, which, to United's credit, didn't happen because they understood the value of that 5" of customer legroom to their fliers, especially their elite program members.

In this case, they screwed up. Cost efficiencies are fine, but not at the expense of the customers especially if it involves a serious service issue that can be at least mitigated by something that already had as a proven benefit.

In the interests of fairness, I have no confirmation of the elimination of this beyond a couple of United employees who told me that they couldn't do that anymore and why, so there is some hearsay there. But it is dangerous when a competitor like Delta is allowing real time baggage tracking on mobile devices directly by customers.

United, be careful what you wish for here. Cost doesn't ever win v customers if its truly head to head.

Failed Expectations

This is unfortunately the worst of the problems. My expectations for how the luggage would be handled were set by two comments.  "We'll keep your luggage overnight and transfer it to your new flight. Don't worry" and "we work 24X7. When it comes in, we'll put it out on a special delivery vehicle and get it to you at the hotel"

If I was told, "well, of course there can be a reasonable chance because of high volumes that it won't make it" I might have made decided to get my bag and bring it with me home and recheck it the next day.  Even though I wouldn't have liked hearing that, I would have had honest information about what to expect and could have made a more intelligent decision.

The promises of delivery were even worse because it seemed so plausible. I'm sure that United does do things 24X7 though how baggage counters opening at 9:00am supports that when people are flying at 6:00am, I'm not sure. But even despite that, when a customer who flies a lot on the airline makes a not terribly complicated special request - like please get it to me if it arrives in time so I can get what I need before the time I need it, and there is a promise to do so, honor the promise. It was doable if it got there at 10:30am and the couriers were moving throughout the night. But it was ignored and basically a HUGE failure in my mind, not United's not other customers. But here I am writing about it.  If United had said, "well, I can't really guarantee that" or "we'll try but we have a lot of bags to move and we aren't allowed to prioritize" or something that set an honest expectation - I wouldn't have liked it but I would have accepted it because I had no choice.

So with a background of a cancelled flight, a delayed flight, a bad customer v cost decision, and two poorly done jobs at level setting of expectations, what could I or another customer in this situation or a similar one possibly think?

While Jeff Smisek travels sunnily along, refusing to acknowledge that United has a lot of problems, yet, people like me continue to fly due to not a whole lot great options and costs of switching being high, he needs to think about the following advice:

  1. When you have a service issue that can be mitigated by something you already are providing, don't eliminate it.
  2. Transparency needs to be the mantra for you. Be honest, instruct employees to be transparent about some of the uncertainties that are there - which means don't make promises you can't keep or allow your staff to do so either. I know they can do it out of not wanting to scare customers, but honesty is actually the best policy. Customers may not like what they hear but at least they can make a decision intelligently. By hiding the uncertainties, you take that ability away from your customers.   Don't.

Then maybe, maybe, we'll start to like you again.

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