How United Broke My Experience


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This a tale of six airports, 16 hours, and one long failed experience.

It has two parts, first the story and then the lessons learned from it.  Critical learning: experiences are not about technology, are about people. Read on.

Disclosure: I hate all airlines equally, and don’t expect to ever be paid by any of them for anything. Quite the contrary, I expect to continue to pay for bad service, horrible attitudes, and to serve as a cathartic release for the stress it causes their employees to work for an airline. And, I expect to do this for the rest of my life as neither my lottery numbers are ever coming up, nor am I going to buy a private plane anytime soon. The purpose of this is not to chastise anyone or say, “you owe me a million miles or $10,000.00 for what you did to me”. I am using a life experience as a lesson in building better experiences.

Morning started bright and early trying to leave Colorado Springs at 930 AM and make it home by 100 PM. I had a lunch appointment I wanted to keep. It was snowing, but just slightly and then it stopped, the forecast was decent through 400 PM or so. I thought I needed to get out of there before the storm really hit, and was happy to be in the first flight out of there in the AM.

Turns out the plane that would take me to Denver came from Denver (did I mention it is only 69 miles, I wanted to rent a car and was told that it was not a good idea).  It had been delayed at Denver in a very complicated maneuver called de-icing, which apparently folks in Denver don’t do very often; it took them 2 hours to do. I can understand if that happens in, say, Hawaii, or Los Angeles, or Orlando – but Denver? Turns out that even though they had the warning about the storm, the airport decided to have fewer-than-necessary de-icing trucks. No, I don’t know why – they just did.

I missed my connection – by 30 seconds (yes, this involved a very long, hurtful marathon-like distance run through the airport in my overweight, out-of-shape state). As I got to the door United Employee#1 was just about to close the door and the following dialog ensued:

UE#1: You missed your flight
EK: but it was United’s delay due to de-icing, can I just get in?
UE#1: don’t care whose fault it was, you missed your flight
EK: can you help me re-book?
UE#1: no, you have to go to the customer service center (about half way down the way I had just come)
EK: I just run all the way across the terminal, and I’d appreciate if you could help me.
UE#1: not my job

If you notice any empathy, “I’m sorry”, or “let me help you valuable customer” you probably were not there.

I walked to the customer service center – which was closed (on a stormy day? Yeah, I can see the logic there).  I walked to the next one, which was open – and crowded like you would not believe (unless you fly often, in which case you know what I am talking about).

What’s that? Premier Executive line? Closed, of course.

Having flown long enough I know that sometimes is faster to call reservations. I did, and a very pleasant voice told me three times it did not understand the number I spoke as my frequent flier number before disconnecting. At least I know why he hanged up: because a robot does not understand how frustrating it is to us humans to deal with them.

I called again, pressed zero about – don’t know, 30? 40? – times and finally was told I was being connected to an operator.  Or so I thought… the average wait time was 25 minutes, but they appreciated me waiting… and waiting… and waiting. While waiting, I was moving up the line and after only 20 minutes in line I got to talk to United Employees #2 and #3:

EK: I missed my connection due to airline problem and need to get home. I know there is a storm coming around 4-5, so I’d like to get out of here before then if I could. I’d appreciate your help, as the other employee I just talked to was quite rude.
UE#2: yeah, those people at Skywest (United’s partner, commuter airline that brought me over to Denver and was nothing but nice and very informative) are like that.
EK: it was an employee from your airline
UE#2: well, it happens… so what do you want to do now?
EK: go home to Reno
UE#2: yeah, I see you are re-booked on a flight leaving tonight at 630 already
EK: can you re-route me through San Francisco? I’d like to get out of here before the storm hits if possible
UE#3 (another one, chiming in without being asked): you can only do that for the last flight of the day
EK: I am a Exclusive Level Loyal Customer
UE#2: it does not matter who you are, policies are the same for all
EK: can you re-route me to Sacramento, I will drive from there, I know you won’t pay for the car – but could you please check?
UE#2: there is flight living here at 300 PM, getting there at 430 PM.
EK: Perfect, can I get in on that one?
UE#2: with the change fee the new fare is $467.20 (or something like that).
EK: excuse me?
UE#2: you are changing your destination city, we have to charge you the new fare
EK: but it was your fault I missed my connection, and did I mention I am an Premier Executive? I usually don’t get charged for that small change due to weather or airline problem.
UE#2: if you want to change it, you have to pay. Do you want it?

So, I picked up my tickets and went along to call my travel agent. She suggested we check other airlines, and the only one that left before 5 PM was Southwest Airlines.  Southwest is better, I know I am going to make it home by 6 PM with a layover. Right?

The first flight I was booked gets delayed, and I will miss my connection, but if I go through Salt Lake I can catch a connection to Reno and get home just an hour later than before. Fine, let’s do it. I get on the plane, we get going, and — we need to de-ice. Should only be 30 minutes or so. Apparently “or so” in Denver-speak means 90 minutes. Forget the connection to Reno, how do I get home? Southwest changes me from Salt Lake, then going to Phoenix, then to Los Angeles, then finally to Reno. They say I will make it, have a tight connection in Phoenix but I can make it. No problem.

(side note: ever seen the movie Forget Paris with Billy Crystal? He spends the whole movie saying “never say piece of cake, it just jinxes things”. For airlines the phrase that does that is “no problem” – trust me on this).

No problem turns into un-describable problem (still don’t know what happened there), and we are delayed some 40 minutes (which was exactly my connection time) leaving, plus another 10 or so landing and leaving the plane.  Apparently there were more than one person (me) going to Reno from that flight because the flight attendant got on the PA and said “If you are going to Reno, please run to gate D1 as we are holding the plane for you – please don’t stop for anything – just go there”.

I am certain that is not true, so I asked her “Are you sure that is happening? We are coming almost 20 minutes after the plane is supposed to have taken off, did you ask ground operations?” She said “no, we did not ask – but this is the way Southwest works – I know”.
Plane lands, and I am off to the races (sorry, plane lands in gate B12 – about 50 miles away from D1). Run, cough up some lung, run some more, stop to pant, decide that I’d rather die right there, start walking, slow down the walk… made it to D1.

There is no sign that says Reno, or boarding, or anything like it – so I just go to the front of the line and ask the airport personnel (do they have a title?) “Excuse me, I just got off a plane, am supposed to catch a connection to Reno and the flight attendant in my flight say you were holding the plane for me – can I get in?”.  Imagine my shock when she said “Oh, honey – we were never holding that plane. You have to take the next one – but that one is delayed until 710 PM (it was like 5-ish)”.

I check in – and I must point out that through all this re-rerouting I was not asked to pay for anything – they listen to my story and feel sorry for me and give me a coupon for a free drink.

As the poet once said “every airline screw up is an opportunity for a blog post on lessons learned”. Actually, it was not the poet it was @elliotross –who also encouraged me to write this 2000 words essay – well, he just wanted the lessons but I am not that cheap and easy to prostitute my writing “skillz” (five lessons learned and micro-blogged via twitter are at the end, btw).

Here is the second part of this, how United broke my experience (note: even though there were problems with Southwest, they did try their best to make it better as time went by – problems will happen, how you tackle them defines the experience).

An experience is not a single event, is a continuum of interactions.  An experience for this trip would not be defined, for example, as boarding the plane but rather the entire trip.  Throughout the end-to-end process of booking the flight through arriving at my destination there are several interactions – and each one of those (we call them Moments of Truth or MOT) define a part of the experience.  One bad MOT can ruin an entire experience in the same way as a bad apple can ruin an entire barrel.  The attention to these MOTs is what distinguishes organizations committed to providing experiences for their customers from those that are not.

The critical aspect of MOTs is that they are not always surrounded or related to technology.  Talking to an employee, asking for an exception to the rules, trying to go above and beyond what is expected are outstanding MOT behaviors that will even cancel out other negative behaviors that may have happened along the way.  Southwest offering me a free drink to compensate the wrong advice given to me by the flight attendant is an example of this.  Did I write in the title how Southwest broke my experience – or United?  Making that extra effort for the customer is what defines a culture of being committed to an experience versus one that is not.

Experiences are critical to develop long-term emotional loyalty, and people are the ones that make the experiences happen.  You will get a far greater return on your investment if you invest in building a culture of providing awesome experiences for your customers than if you buy the latest and greatest technology.  Empowering your employees, making experiences part of your values, and training and fostering the culture of customer experience is something that you have to do to embrace experiences.

Technology, that is the easy part.  Make the decision to focus on the experiences, not the technologies, and in building a culture of providing awesome experiences.  You will see better results that you can by simply implementing technology.

OK, Since I promised I would – here are the five lessons learned yesterday while travelling that were micro-blogged via Twitter as time went by (should I say cross-posted?)

  1. When a Customer is upset, no mater whose fault it is or what happened, it’s not the time to say “it is not my problem”.
  2. When you build a loyalty program, mean it. Treat your customers in it as loyal, because they think they are being loyal to you.
  3. Make your partners an extension of your organization. They are working with your customers for you.
  4. If you don’t know what the answer is, don’t make it up and promise it is true. Say I don’t know and I will find out for you. Then do.
  5. Sometimes all goes bonkers around you and it is not your fault. But they are still your customers.

Update (10/29/2009 – 13:20 PDT): United responded to me, I responded to them.

Esteban Kolsky
ThinkJar, LLC
Esteban Kolsky is the founder of CRM intelligence & strategy where he works with vendors to create go-to market strategies for Customer Service and CRM and with end-users leveraging his results-driven, dynamic Customer Experience Management methodology to earn and retain loyal customers. Previously he was a well-known Gartner analyst and created a strategic consulting practice at eVergance.


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