Rule #1 for Creating Good Customer Experiences: Ban the phrase “There’s nothing that I can do” from the corporate vernacular.


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I’d like to begin this blog post by telling a short story, entirely true. I was out of town this week, in Salt Lake City attending my firm’s business review session with my team and had planned to fly home to New Jersey early on a Friday morning on United Airlines. Salt Lake, it turned out was expecting bad winter weather beginning Thursday night into the weekend so I called our corporate travel partner and moved my flight to Thursday afternoon thinking I was going to successfully hedge my bet and beat the incoming snow. I did not even flinch when I was told I had to pay an additional $150 change fee to do so.

Arriving at the airport more than 2 1/2 hours before departure I was informed by the counter agent (interesting phrase… “Counter-agent”… but we’ll get back to that point later on) that the plane I was on had mechanical problems and would be delayed 30 minutes which would not normally pose a problem except for today given only a 50 min layover in Chicago, virtually ensuring I’d miss my connection home.

The counter agent, when asked about the tight turn around assured me there’d be no problem, and when I pressed the issue about the snow which was by then starting, she told me there was “Nothing she could do.”.

While I showed empathy about the impending weather challenges knowing sure, she didn’t cause it to snow, I was completely put off by her dismissive attitude and decided lack of any level of creative authority to offer a remedy, especially knowing if I missed my connection I’d be stranded in Chicago with no real way home.

I pressed the issue and she made a cursory attempt to look at alternate flights and after a few minutes again repeated what must be the new United Airlines mantra, “there is nothing I can do.”

I was getting more disappointed in what felt like I was getting the giant brush-off, and while I am not the most frequent flyer on United, I did accrue more than 500,000 miles in recent years on their planes. I asked to speak to a manager, who came downstarirs to meet me a few minutes later, and looking over the agent’s shoulder looked up and simply said, “Sorry Mr. Mandel. There’s nothing we can do.”. There’s that mantra again.

Again I pressed, firmly but calm and was given an alternative of flying west, to San Francisco an hour later than the flight I was reserved on and then taking the midnight redeye home. Again, defeated, I agreed, and then asked the “counter-agent” what she’d do if she was me, given her experience with the local airport operations and weather, figuring that if the snow worsened, I’d have less of a chance getting out on the San Francisco flight an hour later than the chicago plane I was already booked on. She recommended saying with the chicago plane so I took her recommendation and dutifully went to my gate.

The weather continued to worsen, so I asked the serious-looking gate agent her thoughts about the tight turn around in Chicago while I still had time to do something about it and switch to the san francisco plane if doing so made sense. I was assured by her I’d get out on time, or close enough and make the plane and get home as hoped.

Of course the plane was more than 30 minutes late coming into the gate and by the time we were boarded most of my turn around window was going to be lost. I asked the senior gate agent before boarding if I could switch to the other flight and she simply said she was busy boarding people on this flight and there would be “nothing she can do” to help me.

Defeated, I got on the plane.

By the time the plane left Salt Lake City we were close to 60 minutes late and I knew I was in trouble for the connecting plane unless a miracle happened. I asked the flight attendant on the plane is there was a way to call ahead, like they did in the movies sometimes I think, to let them know there were passengers on the plane who needed that connection and to please hold it. She smiled and said “I’m sorry, there’s really nothing I can do.”

Defeated again, I sank further into my chair and waited.

When we landed in Chicago I still had 15 minutes before the next plane was to leave for home and I was planning my airport sprint when the plane haulted in the taxi area. The pilot got on the PA and said that our gate was occupied and we’d have to wait. Oh yes, he added “There was nothing he could do.”

Eventually, I deplaned in Chicago, resigned to spending the night here when I know I needed to be back on the East coast first thing tomorrow for business reasons. I was told at the airport that I would be put on the first plane out in the morning which was a 6am plane home. When I inquired about being put on a later plane to make sure further delays did not stop me from attending important business meetings which I’d now have to dial-in to rather than do so in person, I was told by the Chicago agent “I’m sorry, you have to take this plane. There’s really no other option and there’s really nothing I can do.”

At this point I gave up, went to my hotel room supplied by United to avoid having to sleep on the floor at O’Hare for the night reflecting on how Jeff Smisek, CEO of United has ruined a once great airline. I made a solemn promise to myself to avoid their brand from this point forward and indeed seek a new travel partner.

In thinking about this story, I also reflected on how the big airlines like United are constantly reducing services and cutting resources like fligtht schedules and legroom in a vein attempt to squeeze profits at the expense of traveler customer experience. Clearly in my mind it’s a matter of death by a thousand cuts, and at some point the airline will be eclipsed by the younger, hungrier competition who doesn’t know how to say “There’s nothing I can do” and instead takes pride in a cavalier, rogue attitude providing innovative services and smiles from truly empowered and happy-to-be-there employees.

United has obviously squashed its employees’ ability to think outside of the box. Instead, seemily just taught to dismiss the customer and move on to the next.

If there’s a lesson here, empower your employees to address customer needs, no matter how small, or complicated to whatever extent possible. You’ll be amazed by what a good attitude and willingness to lend a hand will bring in terms of customer loyalty and advocacy. Just as I felt the need to write this story tonight sharing my experience on United today, I could have written a more complimentary piece and eagerly shared a great experience with you. It just did not play out that way for either United, or me today.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Marc Mandel
Marc Mandel is a Regional Sales Director at Allegiance, Inc.


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