A service failure reveals surprising customer service trends


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On the Friday before Christmas my wife, Sally, headed to Newark Liberty airport for what she thought would be an uneventful flight home to San Diego. What followed instead was a string of bizarre delays lasting nearly nine hours that could only be caused by a company as inept as United Airlines.

Throughout the day, Sally texted me frequent updates on her flight status. I captured her messages in a blog post that turned out to be my most read post of the year.

Sally finally made it home safely. As she recounted her ordeal over a late dinner that night I realized that her experience reflected a few surprising customer service trends. Perhaps most surprising of all is that Sally intends to remain a loyal United Airlines customer (more on that later).

Trend 1: Communication is more important than the problem
Research posted by Rob Markey on the Net Promoter System blog just one day prior to Sally’s trip suggested that the way airlines handled a flight delay had a larger impact on customer perception than the delay itself. More specifically, passengers were much more understanding when the pilot provided frequent, clear, and empathetic updates.

This is exactly what happened on Sally’s flight. The pilot and the rest of the flight crew were absolutely terrific and the passengers generally remained calm as a result.

Trend 2: Anticipatory Customer Service
In his book, High Tech, High-Touch Customer Service, Micah Solomon describes the concept of anticipatory customer service where companies predict customer needs and proactively address them. Anticipating a customer’s needs gives companies an opportunity to provide unexpectedly good service or fix a problem before it gets even worse.

By the time Sally’s flight landed, the passengers on her plane had received an email from United Airlines apologizing for the delay and offering their choice of travel credit or frequent flyer miles as compensation. Sally has experienced her share of challenges in the past trying to get a response from the United Airlines customer service department, so it was a pleasant surprise to receive a proactive resolution.

Trend 3: Not all customers are equal
A day prior to Sally’s trip, Adam Toporek wrote a post on his CustomersThatStick blog explaining how all customers should expect excellent treatment, but they can’t all be VIPs. In the real world, Toporek explains, some customers will receive better treatment and service than others and deservedly so.

Sally certainly had some advantages over other passengers on her flight from Newark. She was relatively comfortable in her first class seat with plenty of legroom, a power outlet to keep her computer and phone charged, and attentive service from the flight attendants. Sally also knew from comparing notes with other passengers that she received a higher compensation offer in her email from United than the people sitting next to her.

Sally received better treatment than her fellow passengers because she is Premier 1k frequent flyer member. To earn this status, she had to fly more than 100,000 miles on United Airlines in 2012. This frequent flyer level comes with perks like complimentary first class upgrades, but Sally had to spend many hours and many flights sitting in coach to get there.

Final Trend: Why Sally is still loyal to United Airlines
Last November, Bruce Temkin shared new research that reveals some companies’ customers are more loyal than their customer experience ratings suggest they deserve. United Airlines was 19th on Temkin’s top 20 list. One of the explanations offered by Temkin was that people may be more loyal to a company than reasonable when there aren’t a lot of acceptable alternatives.

This is exactly why Sally will continue flying United almost exclusively. United Airlines offers a flight schedule that best meets her overall business travel needs in terms of cost and convenience. Her frequent flyer status also ensures she spends less time waiting in airport check-in and security lines and receives frequent seat upgrades. Looking at the big picture, Sally would have to spend more money and travel with less convenience to avoid flying United Airlines.

One Final Note
United Airlines might pat themselves on the back for earning Sally’s continued loyalty. What they may not realize is they still lost a customer that day – me.

I flew enough miles on United Airlines last year to earn their Premier Silver status. I plan on traveling a lot more this year and that status would have come in handy. However, unlike Sally, I have several good alternatives that make it easy to say I won’t be buying a ticket on United Airlines anytime soon.

Republished with author's permission from original post.


  1. Hi Michael,

    Your wife’s chat exchange with “Zelda” at the cable company reflects a few problems common to many contact centers. If I had to guess, I bet the following assumptions are true:

    * The first line of the chat exchange was scripted. Someone in marketing may have come up with it because it sounds positive, but it doesn’t feel very authentic to an upset customer.

    * Zelda’s job responsibilities require her to carry on several chat discussions simultaneously. I don’t think your wife had Zelda’s full attention.

    * Rules and work procedures are emphasized over customer satisfaction in Zelda’s contact center. This leads reps like Zelda to focus on process rather than quickly resolve problems like the one your wife experienced.

    By the way — great reference on the United Breaks Guitars song and video by Dave Carroll. It definitely is a classic!


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