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A Missed Customer Service Opportunity

by David Brock on June 28th, 2012

At this moment, I’m sitting in the United Club in Concourse C at Chicago O’Hare.  I should be sitting in an airplane climbing to 35,000 feet.  Instead, I feel as though I’ve spent half my life in this club—and that’s just this evening.

Delays are part of any road warrior’s life.  You learn not to let them get to you, you roll with the punches, look at alternatives, or camp out in the nearest club.

Today’s delay is different, and a tremendous missed customer service opportunity on the part of United Airlines.  See, I was originally scheduled to leave on a 10:25 PM flight.  While late, I had my very favorite seat—1D in first/business class.

Remarkably, my meetings went faster than I had anticipated.  I arrived early and found I could catch an 8:55 flight.  I learned I could make the change with no penalty fee, but I wouldn’t be in first class.  Arriving 1.5 hours earlier than anticipated was fantastic!  I was glad to give up the seat if I could catch the earlier flight.  United was very cooperative and helpful in letting me change my flight.  I settled into the club for the first time, thinking I’d have a short wait, looking forward to arriving at my destination 1.5 hour early—still late at night, but not very early in the morning.

30 minutes later, I noticed something on the flight boards.  Something was flashing on my flight.  I took a closer look.  My flight had been delayed.  I went to the customer service desk.  “What’s happened?”

“I’m very sorry, the flight has been really delayed.  It was supposed to leave Vancouver BC hours ago.  But it’s just departed.  It’s scheduled to arrive at 11:30PM and we are going to do our best to turn it around quickly and leave at 11:50.”  (For those not used to airline speak as we road warriors know how to instantly decode.  I was being told not to hold my breath for an 11:50 departure).

We learn to be calm in these situations.  It’s not the customer service rep’s fault, I just want her to help me.  “If you look in my record, you’ll see changed flights 30 minutes ago.  Could you possibly get me back onto that flight?  I don’t care about the first class seat, I’d just like to get back on that flight.”

She was very polite, “I’m so sorry, that flight is full, and there are no open seats.”

Starting to get agitated, I said, “But I just gave up my first class seat about 30 minutes ago, there’s nothing available?”  (I pleaded, hoping she would be sympathetic.).

“No, I’m sorry , it’s full,” she replied.

So now, the logical side of my brain kicks in.  “Let me understand this.  I changed my reservation about 30 minutes ago to catch an earlier flight.  At the time I changed it, United already knew that flight would be significantly delayed —in fact, it would depart hours after the posted departure.  Do I have that part right?”

She smiled and said, “Yes, because the plane is coming from Vancouver, we clearly knew it would be very late.”

“OK,” I replied, “Why didn’t anyone tell me that and suggest I might want to keep my original reservations?”

Her smile faded, her forehead wrinkled, she was thinking about it, I could see she was struggling and thinking,  “Now how did they tell me to answer perfectly logical questions, when we are clueless because the customer has caught us doing something stupid?”

Instead, she replied, “I really don’t know, I’m terribly sorry.  But we are going to turn the plane around as fast as possible,” and she smiled sympathetically.

The airline had the data, they know the flight would be very late.  When I was looking to change my flight, they could have told me, “We expect a pretty big delay.  We’d be glad to change your flight, but you might want to consider keeping your current reservation.”  Instead, they chose not to share that information with me.  So now they have generated an upset customer (with a great blog following).

If anyone knows the guys who did the famous United Airlines baggage handling video—you know, the one that went viral on YouTube, would you put them in touch with me?  I’d like to film the sequel!

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  1. Oh Dave, I completely share your frustration. I’m a marketing expert that believes passionately in customer service and I do get upset when I hear of these type of stories. I did my thesis on Relationship Marketing in the Airline Industry for my Masters of Business in International Marketing a good few years back and somethings never change.

    It’s so frustrating for you. So will the original flight go before your new flight? Isn’t it amazing how much a little logical thinking goes a long way?

    Let us know how you get on. Have another (complimentary!) coffee.
    Take care,

  2. Dave,
    I wrote a blog on our website “Customer Service or Customer Loyalty” about a similar issue with Delta Airlines and vowed never to fly them again!

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