I really haven’t gotten very cranky lately, but an experience this weekend put me back in the cranky mood. My girlfriend and I decided to use miles on United to go to Hawai’i. We had to book separately since we used our own mileage accounts. We walked through the process simultaneously online, but in the end mine went through and hers didn’t. The website said to contact United reservations due to technical issues, so I did. That’s where the problem began. Here is an approximate transcript of the three different conversations it took to get things fixed.
United Rep #1 (with heavy Indian accent): Hi this is Mark, can I have your name?
Me: Yes, it’s Brett
“Mark” (I hate that they use fake Americanized names – never good to start off with a lie): Ok Mr Brett, how can I help you?
Me: I got booked but my girlfriend didn’t. Help me.
“Mark”: I checked and there are no more seats available, sorry Mr Brett.
Me: That’s great, but I’m not going to Hawai’i alone. Are there other flights with two seats available?
“Mark”: Yes Mr Brett
Me: Can you change it?
“Mark”: No Mr Brett. You’ll have to go online and request a refund. That will take 7 to 10 days.
Me (After checking online and seeing that I’m not allowed to request Mileage Plus refunds online): It says I can’t do it online and I have to call you.
“Mark”: No Mr Brett, you have to do it online.
Me: Ok, this is ridiculous. Let me talk to your supervisor
“Mark”: Ok Mr Brett (puts me on terminal hold)
“Mark” (after 10 minutes of listening to Rhapsody in Blue): Mr Brett, my supervisor is still busy but I talked to the support desk and I’m happy to tell you that there are two options. One, you can use double the miles for a standard award or two, you can buy a ticket.
Me: You’re kidding, right? I’m not doing that. Give me a refund.
“Mark”: You have to go online for that Mr Brett
Me: Arrgggggggghhhhhh. Give me the number for Mileage Plus directly.
“Mark”: Ok Mr Brett
So now I’m mad, and I dial Mileage Plus. after 25 minutes of waiting Rhapsody in Blue has been firmly planted in my head. Finally, another Indian agent answers.
United Rep #2 (again with heavy Indian accent): This is Deanne, how can I help you?
Me: I hate everyone. Please help me.
Deanne: What seems to be the problem sir?
Me: I just want to fly to Hawai’i with my girlfriend
Deanne: I’m sorry sir but there are no seats available on those dates on any flights
Me: The last guy told me there were seats but he couldn’t change me. This sucks. Just give me my miles back.
Deanne: Ok, that’ll cost you $100 to have them redeposited
Me: You’ve got to be kidding me! I just booked these and there was a problem. You should be able to refund these for no charge.
Deanne: Hold please
(While I’m listening to Rhapsody yet again and whistling along, I pull up the United customer service plan saying that any tickets can be refunded within 24 hours of purchase. Armed with this, I’m just waiting to pounce.)
Deanne: Ok, I can refund it for free. Just hold.
Me: Ok (somewhat dejected that I don’t get to pounce)
Deanne keeps typing for literally 10 minutes asking me periodic questions about billing addresses, etc and then . . .
She friggin’ hangs up on me! So not cool. I call back and miraculously someone answers quickly. This time she doesn’t have an Indian accent.
United Rep #3: Hi this is Phoebe can I help you?
Me: I think I’m beyond help, but please try
Phoebe: Ok, I see your reservation was canceled but your miles weren’t redeposited. Did you want those redeposited?
Me: No, I was hoping you could just keep them in the canceled reservations. YES, I WANT THE MILES REDEPOSITED!
Phoebe: Ok, thanks for flying United.
At this point, my miles did actually go back to my account, I went back online and booked different flights on that same day with availability. That took 1 minute.
This is certainly not a problem that only United faces. As my girlfriend pointed out after this whole debacle, the advent of having to pay to make a reservation on the phone means that a large portion of the simple reservations have been pushed online. That means that people calling the reservations phone lines are generally facing a problem and need some real help. Of course, people tend to remember the customer service when things go wrong a lot more often than when things go right. With that in mind, you would think that the front line reservationists would be really important for the airline’s image, but sadly that’s not the way airlines perceive it.
Instead the airlines are cutting back on their reservations teams. Many airlines have outsourced at least some of their reservations functions to third parties either domestically or more likely abroad. There are three fundamental problems in reservations offices these days that need to be addressed.
First, adding new employees without adequate training is a recipe for disaster. “Mark” didn’t seem to have a full understanding of what the rules were and that really frustrated me. Then again, I don’t think training alone would have fixed the problem.
Second, there is the issue of empowerment. Front lines agents no longer have the ability to do anything beyond what the rulebooks say. If something doesn’t fall into a category in the rulebook, you’re not getting anywhere. If the airlines don’t want to empower their agents (probably because they haven’t trained them well), they need to make it easy to reach an empowered supervisor when problems arise. In my experience with many airlines, if there is a supervisor around, it’s tough to get them on the phone. When you do, you generally can’t get things resolved anyway, because even they aren’t empowered to help.
Third, there is the issue of empathy. Outsourcing has brought on a whole new level of problems that didn’t exist before. It is certainly hard to relate to people trying to help you with a reservation to Omaha when they have no idea where Omaha is even located. I’ve heard stories about agents suggesting San Francisco as an alternate airport to Los Angeles. I would be surprised if anyone in North America would make that mistake. It’s even harder to relate to someone who has never flown on the airline and possibly never flown at all. They just don’t have the ability to empathize with the problems that travelers face, and that makes getting problems resolved very difficult.
I think about airlines like Southwest which still have their call centers in house and their agents are empowered. I have never had a problem that couldn’t be resolved relatively quickly with a Southwest agent. I imagine that every agent has traveled on the airline and many travel frequently. They know what people are facing and they can empathize. It’s never as frustrating talking to them. I understand part of that is because Southwest’s rules tend to be simpler, but it’s also due to the empathy, empowerment, and training that enables them to do their jobs well. The other airlines need to realize how important those three things can be.