FWIW, this action is actually a formal policy from United. If you arrive at the airport within 2 hours of the original flight time they are supposed to put you on the next available flight without any fees. It is commonly known as the “flat tire rule.” The really troubling part is that the agent on the phone didn’t understand their own company’s policies enough to properly explain them to the woman.
That doesn’t take away from the fact that a good customer service agent will see a situation like this and behave exactly in the same way and that it provides long-term value far in excess of the short-term lost revenue, of course. That part of the lesson here is still quite important.
So the Delta agent at JFK could have told her “If you can make it back to LaGuardia within the 2 hours of your flight, we can put you on the next flight out from there.”
“I’m sorry for your troubles. Can I see your ticket? Yes, I will be happy to place you on the next flight out, with an extra connection, and I’ll waive the transfer fees.”
I had two recent bad customer service interaction while I was in DC. I don’t attribute it to the business each happened at though, but rather the morons they employed. You have a good point in the instance you observed, but there are instances where one might receive bad service and still frequent the business at which it happened. I would say that mainly happens in the food industry though.
Not long ago Home Depot really irritated me because of poor customer service, and I said I wouldn’t go back for what I needed. But it really was the most convenient place so I did, although to a different store, and my experience there was great. As you said, companies need to figure out how to get to do the job 100% of the time, not 50%.
Printed it off and gave it to my staff. In these days of airline companies trying to grab every cent from a customer, this is a refreshing change and a great educational piece for those running a business.
A great post and loved the story. Unfortunately it speaks to the problem many companies have. Being consistently “inconsistent”. One person having a great experience and the next having a terrible one. I hate to say it, but in the current atmosphere, guess which story is going to get more press… the negative.
I agree. The overall impress of any company will be cumulative, and one bad experience = many good experiences. In the long run, maybe this means good things for the overall state of customer service. It’s important for survival.
And… it’s nice to know that United does more than just break guitars.
I was in NYC last week. On Friday we were flying out of EWR and when we went to check into our flight with Air Canada, they informed us that the flight had been cancelled due to bad weather in New York. They said that we would not be able to get home until at least Monday. We asked to speak to a supervisor, who confirmed that the weather was bad and there would be no flights until Monday. The best they could do, we were informed, was to take a train to Philly, at our own expense, and see if we could catch a flight from there. With a 4 year old and a 1 year old at home, my wife and I were both upset. I sent out a tweet to WestJet (@WestJet) asking if they had any way to get us home. WIthin seconds I received a reply back saying that they had a flight leaving in an hour. WestJet then phoned ME(!) to book the flight.
Needless to say, my love of WestJet has been amplified ten fold.
Saw this post on Adweek the other day and was thinking the same thing.
I had a great experience with a Delta ticket agent at the Kansas City airport in February. I had shown up to the airport on time, only to find out I had left my ID at home an hour away. On little sleep, up early, flustered because the trip was for a family emergency, I was a mess. There was no way I could return home, get the ID, and make the flight. Tears started welling up.
The agent, however, remained calm, and promised he’d get me where I needed to go that day. His kindness and patience was exactly what I needed to get through that morning. I sent a message to Delta’s customer service department commending him on his composure. And while I’ve heard horror stories about Delta, I think of this scenario and just can’t speak badly of the airline.
Thanks for the great article. Agree totally about not worrying about creating over the top experiences every time but consistent good experiencess will keep your customers coming back.
Last week someone let me go ahead of them in a Starbucks drivethru line and so I paid for part of their order…the person at the counter then smiled at me and slipped me a discount coupon for my next drink! Loved it! Pass on the Love!
“They can just focus on treating customers one level above crap.” <— Pretty sure we had this conversation over the phone last month. My version is "just north of suck." Same idea. Totally agree.
Funny I should be reading this post on board a Delta flight. The reason I'm on this Delta flight? Well, b/c when I got to SFO this morning and was 5 minutes away from boarding my UAL flight, the agent told us the flight had been canceled. No explanation. No real offer to help the 150+ people who SPRINTED to the Customer "Care" line (which, by the way, was 150 people deep already thanks to a SFO-Chicago flight being canceled). Long long long LONG story short, but I'm now en route to Minneapolis on Delta … who forced me to check my bag at the door of the plane b/c/ they "ran out of room" (I was zone 2).
As you know, I'm not a huge fan of United (see: http://socialbutterflyguy.com/2011/04/26/flying-is-no-longer-fun/). Nor am I a fan of Delta (see: http://socialbutterflyguy.com/2010/05/19/my-delta-airlines-experience-where-did-all-the-humans-go/). In fact, the last time we spoke on the phone, it was about … UAL, who was operating at about 4 levels SOUTH of suck.
When I explained my experience with UAL today to my dad, he said, "You should blog about this." I told him that I've "been there done that" (see links above). But … what I am going to do is stop flying them. Why should I keep giving them my money? But that will not change their crappy policies or poor customer service. Not a bit. I used to think it would. (But know I'm older, wiser, and more mature – ha!).
I do not think all hope is lost however. The solution: Get big businesses to demand better service. I'd like to see big corporations who toss millions of dollars in travel every year at these big airlines to severe ties with them until they change their crappy policies and train their staff that "good customer service has to happen every single time" as you say.
The problem I have with the example in your post above is this: The "feel good" stories are BY FAR the exception, not the rule. Why can't it be the other way around?
I love to read great customer service stories. Peter Shankman shares this one about his favorite airline, United Airlines. (Nice that they are getting some good press.) His story makes a good
point. No matter how good a company might be, one employee can erode the brand and reputation of the company. To a customer, as Shankman says, “One bad employee interaction, and it becomes the company as a whole that doesn’t care, every single time.” I call this the awesome responsibility. At any given time, any employee can represent the brand, the reputation and all of the company’s employees.
Went to get a haircut last week at a pricey local salon, with someone who did a great job last time. However, this time during my “consultation” I got haranged in a loud voice when suggesting a hairstyle, and then told I’d have to come back later that day if I wanted to go shorter. So, I’m sitting there thinking do I want this person to wash my hair and then cut it while I sit here simmering? No! I toss my magazine and say “this isn’t going to work,” get up, and leave. They’re off my list!
About a week later I get a small handwritten card in the mail. Nobody does that anymore, my curiousity is piqued. Turns out to be a note of apology from the salon owner’s girlfriend, with a gift certificate for a free haircut with him and a treatment. That’s a class act. On the other hand, he was standing across the room cutting hair and could have intervened at the time. But, we hate conflict in the suburbs. Anyhow, I’ll finally get that haircut free!
This reminds me of a story (with United as a matter of fact) that I experienced. It wasn’t lately, as a matter of fact it was long enough ago that some of the details are fuzzy but I remember enough to make it relevant.
My husband and I were traveling on the shuttle from DCA to LGA and something happened to the pricing when we were getting our tickets that was fundamentally unfair (this is where the details are fuzzy.) I called customer service to try and resolve the situation. While the agent agreed that the situation was unfair, she told me there was nothing she could do. As any well trained customer would do I asked to speak to her supervisor, same response. I went all the way up to talking to the regional VP of customer service for the Mid Atlantic and got the same response from everyone, yes it is unfair, no, I don’t have the ability to help.
When we showed up to the airport, all the fight was out of me so I was no longer looking for resolution but I mentioned the situation to the agent that checked me in. She immediately responded that it was a ridiculous situation and with a few key strokes she made the change I was requesting all along.
My lesson at the time was that the agents at the airport are a whole heck of a lot more empowered to help customers than those on the phone (even at the highest levels.) The larger lesson though is that when you give your employees different levels of empowerment you create different “classes” of customers. This is one of those things I am watching with interest as I see companies with Twitter customer service people that can and will do more for a customer than the traditional phone CS agents can.
Every person serving customers is a customer themselves. If they put themselves in their customer’s shoes, they would be providing better customer service every single time. The problem is that employees are trained on policies and procedures and are often not empowered to make decisions that are in the customer’s best interest. It’s unfortunate that so many customer service stories are of the negative kind as opposed to this one. The number of people that witnessed this incident and were part of the hugging that ensued will surely be repeating this story for years to come. Imagine a world where employees were on a mission to make a customer’s day instead of ruining it!
There’s a slogan – One Level Above Crap
My wife, 11-month old son and I were flying out of JFK to Italy last week. Our flight number was a Delta flight number and our itinerary had Delta letterhead. When we arrived at the ticket counter, we were informed that the flight was being serviced by Alitalia from a different terminal. The ticket agent help us with our bags and got us complimentary transportation to the other terminal.
At the Alitalia check-in area, the agent informed us that we needed a printed ticket for our child and it should have been provided by Delta. Needless to say at this point, we missed our flight. The agents worked as quickly as they could to get us on the next flight which was serviced by AirFrance.
Despite the fact that all four of our checked bags were lost for a few days, their efforts more than made up for the mistakes. I’d fly Delta again.
I couldn’t agree more. I commented on this topic at http://www.globalcraftsb2b.com/blog/ten-tips-to-a-successful-small-business/ because it really is one of the most overlooked pieces. We all focus on new customers, if only we took as much interest in our existing customer base. Great piece.
I recently purchased a PC from Dell – we must buy 5 or 6 a year, FedEx broke it in shipping and followed Dells instructions to return it to Dell without delivering it to me. Fair enough it happens. Dell did not even bother to contact me – 2 weeks later I tracked it and realized the issue. They didn’t want to replace it , but after asking for supervisors etc I got my replacement PC. A week later I got a letter from Dell asking me to return the original one that I never received. Like many companies they are great if it all goes to plan and horrible when it doesn’t.
On a side note American tried to get me off a plane because they had taken on too much weight (luggage) – despite having lots of empty seats – amazing (FYI I only weigh 180 lbs) Airlines in general and American especially just suck these days.
My customer service story does not have to do with an airline, but with a Chase Bank branch. Called the local branch at around 3 in the afternoon. Let the phone ring perhaps 20 times and no one answered. Knew the bank was opened, so re -dialed thinking I had dialed the wrong number. Again, let it ring for about 20 times when someone finally answered the phone. When they answered, I commented on them not answering the phone in a timely manner. Were they that busy? Were they open? The bank “customer service” rep, responded by telling me that they were not answering the phone in a timely manner because they were trying to train their customers to use the internet instead of communicating directly with the bank customer service reps. Really?
Two comments from a lifelong United customer, but certainly not a big frequent flyer.
1. About 18 mo. ago, my father was terminally ill in Australia and I was flying out from Chicago to LA to Melbourne. We landed in LA and I turned on my phone, only to receive a text that my dad has passed away 10 min earlier. In tears, I deplaned and went to the counter to explain the situation, hoping for a pass to the club so that I could mourn quietly before the next flight. The agent said she had bad news; the Pacific flight that night had just been cancelled due to a mechanical problem. In tears, I told her I had to get to Melbourne for a funeral.
Before they had even made the announcement to the other 350 passengers, two agents took me to another counter on the side and spent 20 minutes just with me, looking for another flight with space. She got me on a Qantas flight leaving a little later.
This was above and beyond service and you can be sure I wrote a letter of commendation to the branch manager.
2. I have a number of friends who work for airlines and I’ve found with the phone agents and gate agents that, at least some of the time, saying that they cannot help, is really saying that they don’t know how to make the change. The booking software can be very, very complex, with hundreds of options and complex sequences. And with airline mergers, you’re sometimes talking to an agent who is learning a whole new platform and doesn’t always understand the different features or capabilities.
Some of the other commenters may have initially spoken to someone who was actually “bluffing” because they didn’t know how to make the change. Then at check-in, they talk to an agent who knows exactly what he or she is doing.
On a couple of occasions when an agent claims that she can’t help, I’ve actually made an excuse to ring off and then call back, to find an agent who does know what she’s doing and can easily make the change.
So in addition to excellent customer service, companies need to emphasize training, training and more training. And they should empower their agents who don’t know how to accomplish something to be able to find a supervisor who not only has the authority but also the knowledge to make the system work.
@peter I had a similar experience on an American flight several months ago that I blogged about (http://wp.me/pYHt6-JY) and sent a letter to the president of American so the flight attendant would be recognized.
Peter, thanks for sharing this story and your insights into how important it is. You’re so right – that it has to start with actually caring about your customers and that success can flow from that. The smaller a company is, the more it has the opportunity to really instill this sort of behavior in every member of the team. In a very real way, startups have a huge advantage over larger incumbents as the age of the consumer really dawns upon us. Making sure that everyone in your organization cares about listening to your customers, about being empathetic and about being focused on making things right is the only way to win in the future, don’t you think?
I travel about 100k a year and usually avoid UA, sorry Peter but I haven’t had nearly the luck with them as you have. As with any business everyone will have a different take, but thanks for sharing gives me hope!
Going along the same lines of providing excellent customer service, the company that I work for is currently developing a mobile application to do just that. I read an article from VentureBeat about how compound apps are the way of the future, serving as an aggregate of information for multiple topics based on consumers’ specified preferences (link is here: http://venturebeat.com/2012/07/06/future-of-mobile-compound-apps-that-know-what-you-want/), and really that’s what MetroMe does. We have built our entire concept around providing the best possible customer service for users, based on what they like and their precise geographic location. We serve as an aggregate for entertainment, nightlife, dining & travel listings etc., but also are able to step it up and purchase tickets, make reservations, and fulfill other miscellaneous requests for MetroMe users. Good customer service is always such a key ingredient to a successful business model, so why not make it the core of how you run your business? Anyway, we’ll be launching this fall, but check out our Indiegogo campaign that we’re currently running– http://www.indiegogo.com/metrome
I have had some of my absolute worst customer service experiences as a customer of the medical system. It seems that when we are patients, we’re expected to hang up our brains and any expectation of respect and good service at the door. I have been yelled at, baby-talked at, insulted and worse. They get especially nasty when a patient points out a mistake or potential mistake. Airlines are downright polite in comparison. But no one, hands down, treats us customers worse than the TSA does. And there is NO recourse and – better not complain, or you’ll get hauled away in handcuffs. (This from someone who gets the full criminal/terrorist “pat-down” every time because I have hip replacements.)
You’re absolutely right. It starts with one person. The question is … have companies trained that one person to make the right decision or to care? I would say United had an adjustment in culture from the United Breaks Guitars fiasco
But there’s an overall problem in customer service in the airline industry, as I’m sure you can attest.
United’s management will see Peter’s blog post. They’ll have either one of two reactions: 1) They’ll pass it through the company as an example of how to do customer service right. 2) Or they’ll issue a memo to remind employees not to waive fees. Sadly, my money is on the latter.
“Because if the first person doesn’t care, the company doesn’t care.”
Exactly! Every person in your company is responsible for living up to the brand promise. No one will remain the name of the call center agent who helped them, they’ll just remember they were helped. The same thing works in reverse. Your employees ARE your brand and they way they interact with your customers directly impacts how your customers interact with your brand.
You can’t train people to care, but you can hire caring people … and that does wonders for a company’s culture. Great story, Peter.
Great article. One add: Good company service starts with good employee service. Show me a company where the CEO bends over backwards for employees and I’ll show you employee who bend over backwards for customers. “The feet follow the head.”
i am totally agree with you. why would you give better customer service because you need the same customer again and again. if you consider that you would see your % number even higher than 50…agree?
This story reminds me on the saying (and I will loosely
paraphrase) one bad apple ruins the bunch. I work at a Student Recreational
Center on the Indiana State University campus in Terre Haute, IN, as a Building
Supervisor. College students will not even get a follow up interview if they
cannot properly and genuinely answer the question, “How are your people skills?”
We are taught from day one of training to leave personal complications outside
of the building. Our first responsibility in the job is to smile and greet the
patrons in a warm, caring manner. It is not hard to grasp the concept that if
you keep customers happy they will return again because they will be reminded
of happy memories of someone being nice to them. Society is obsessed with word
of mouth. If we keep our patrons happy, they will tell their friends and then
we have an amazing cycle of individuals talking about what a great environment
and pleasant experiencing working out at the Rec is like.
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