David J. Danto
Business travel thoughts in my own, personal opinion
The Pivot Of Customer Service To The Internet
Once upon a time in the travel industry – in fact in every industry – service companies cared what customers thought of them. I don’t mean that they just said that they cared – I think that every company still does that so frequently that it’s become the one of our society’s great lies (right along with “the check is in the mail” “I’m from the government and I’m here to help” and the other more ribald examples.) Instead, I’m referring to that time in history when the management of these companies actually cared how their customers felt about them. This was usually backed by an understanding that it’s much harder to win-back a customer you’ve wronged than it is to keep a current customer happy. At one point it was true that if you lost enough customers you’d go out of business. The current environment of deregulation and the resulting travel oligarchies that have flourished in its wake does a sufficient job of forcing people to use companies no matter how much they are hated. Customer service has truthfully become a battle for the bottom, not an exercise in being the best – and it’s honestly been that way for a long time now.
I bring all of this up because I’ve had enough recent experiences to change my thinking and approach to customer service – and it’s a process pivot we must all learn from.
In the past, when a company was clearly in the wrong resulting in a horrible customer experience, we would use a number of tried and true methods to seek a resolution. We’d call their customer service phone number first. If there was no empathy nor action we’d “ask for a supervisor” who was usually more empowered to enact a resolution in the customer’s favor. If that didn’t work we could sometimes ask for an investigation to be initiated. Alternatively, we could type a long, detailed letter to an organization’s executive management. In both of those cases we were usually sure that once someone senior in the organization knew of our poor experience they’d be aghast, and would use the power of their position to make it right.
Regrettably that thinking and process has gone the way of black and white television – we remember it more fondly than it actually was, and it’s long-gone now. My long detailed letter to Royal Caribbean’s senior management about my completely horrendous travel experience (detailed in this blog) eventually resulted in a phone call from some low-level agent who apologized and made a completely insulting offer of a tiny future credit on a future cruise she knew we’d never take. The sad reality is that all travel companies care about now is the public’s perception of their customer service – not their actual customer service. They don’t give a damn if they treat you nicely or not, they just want enough people to believe that they treat you nicely so that it won’t impact their bottom-line. This is going to require a change in the escalation process that we business travelers use to receive a resolution to issues. Let me give you some examples of the problem and the new process.
· Anyone who reads my travel blogs knows I’m no fan of United Airlines. I fly them out of EWR because I’m a 20 minute drive from there, not because I want to. The merger of Continental and United resulted in a monstrosity that took the worst of both firms and made the abomination that exists today. Their “friendly skies” motto is about as far opposite from the actual experiences they provide as it could be. Emails and letters to their offices often go weeks without a response, and then that response is usually rote and/or off the point. One of my many awful experiences last year prompted me to write in with a complaint, and their response was that they were not allowed to read the details of a posted trip report. Another time, they downgraded my seat the day before a flight to a horrible one that would not receive meal service nor the additional room I paid for, and when I called in and asked for a supervisor he threatened me with cancelling my flight if I told anyone about the downgrade. My subsequent follow-up with United resulted in them denying the call ever took place. They must have had a record of me asking an agent to change my flight – because it actually was changed on the call (and I provided them the Call Detail Record from my phone that documented the day, time and length of the call) but they claimed “their records show that I never called them that day.” (Yes, that documented flight change must have been communicated and confirmed telepathically.)
· My wife and I have excellent credit, and we hold and use a number of credit cards. We typically use our American Express card when we want to ensure we have that organization and its legendary customer service backing us up. What a shock it was to us to find out that their customer service is a shadow of what it once was. We had received an offer in the mail that said we were entitled to a $70 statement credit after completing a stay at certain Hilton properties – an offer we had clearly qualified for. We called customer service and they refused to provide the credit, stating that we had to pre-register for the offer. That made no sense to us as we only received the mail from them mid-November (for an offer that had a start date of August 30th) so we couldn’t have pre-registered for a stay that took place the first week of November. We asked that they connect us to a supervisor, and that supervisor initiated an investigation and promised they’d get back to us within 30 days. They never got back to us. When we called-in again ~45 days later the agent said the investigation was completed and the results were not in our favor. We asked that if they really wanted us to cancel an account that routinely spends ~$50K a year over $70. The agent said “OK, I’ll cancel it for you” and then just did. No supervisor, no transfer to a customer retention operator, no recognition of affinity status or annual spend or years of usage…just goodbye, click. My wife and I were stunned. Was this the same American Express we had used for years because of their excellent support? Apparently it was all gone – just like those black and white TV shows.
The lesson we all have to learn now is that the situation has changed and the power has moved. Remember, these firms no longer care if you had bad service, they now only care if people find out that you had bad service. Here’s my proof.
· One tweet I sent last year about United detailed an all too typical problem at the gate…this one was being told – ten minutes before boarding—that there would be no WiFi (and thusly no personal entertainment) on an approximately six hour Premium Service flight. It (by far) wasn’t my first United flight, so I was prepared for their typical inevitable issues. (I had a sandwich if food wasn’t served, I had movie files to watch, etc.) I only sent the tweet to inform others about the issue. United’s Twitter team responded and sent me a $100 travel certificate for the inconvenience. Really? The time earlier in the year that I was delayed for hours due to sheer incompetence and then forced to sit on a boiling hot plane with a broken air conditioner before take-off, the United Customer Care team made an offer of $25 for my trouble. $25 for a nightmare flight, $100 for a tweet that detailed some very typical United neglect? Are you seeing the pattern? But wait, there’s more…
· After we cancelled the American Express cards I mentioned above I again tweeted to those that follow me (as a business travel blogger) to let them know of the exasperating experience. I copied @AmericanExpress and @AskAmex. Well, I’m sure you can guess what happened next. The AskAmex team replied and eventually resolved the problem in our favor and reinstated the account. After thanking the very nice agent and asking who we could inform of her great service, the actual quote from her reply in the text chat to my wife was:
“It was truly my pleasure. If anything, the best thing would be to have you or your Husband write on Twitter that the issue was resolved. Should you have any issues in the future, please reach out to me [name removed] via DM on Twitter and I will be more than happy to assist you. I have more capabilities to assist and make exceptions than our front line representatives.”
Did the light-bulb go off for you as it did for me in reading that? These travel companies have removed from telephone agents and customer service departments the ability to do the right thing by customers, and have instead empowered their Social Media teams to do whatever they need to do to ensure that people won’t perceive of how bad the customer service actually is. Wow.
So here’s the advice and the pivot we all must make. Stop complaining to customer service departments and telephone operators and stop writing long letters to travel company senior management. Our fears of how useless those steps have become are now proven fact. All the power has been shifted to the team that is in place to prevent negative perception on social media. Find out what Twitter handle the customer service department of a travel company monitors and just send a tweet to them. Hopefully they’ll reach out as a result. These are now the people that have the ability to grant waivers and favors and do the right thing after a wrong has occurred. Don’t abuse it – just as we never should have abused the called or written complaint – but in actual situations that demand justice or compensation, the smart move now is to reach-out to the people actually empowered do something about it. Welcome to our Brave New World…
This article was written by David Danto and contains solely his own, personal opinions.
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