Today I had quite an experience with United Airlines. It has very little to do with much of anything I usually write about here, save one key element: I have posited that to succeed in what I’ve been calling the Conversation Economy, companies must learn to have conversations with their customers at scale.
Well, here’s a tale of one company failing miserably at doing just that, even while, in the end, due to my own insistence (and most likely, the rising level of anger in my voice), it kind of, sort of, managed to not totally fail. More on that in a minute.
But first, the backstory.
I am a United flyer, in the main. I’m not saying I’m a proud, loyal, or passionate United flyer, but a United flyer I am. I like their “PS” service between NY and SF, and I fly that route a lot – to the point of knowing the flight attendants and picking exactly which seats I settle into each trip. I tend to fly United wherever else I go (and anyone who follows me on Twitter knows I go to a lot of places). I’ve been an Executive Premier there for a long, long time (though I think it dropped at some point during the bad years of 2001-02) – which means I fly a ton with United. At some point or other this year, in fact, United let me know that I’m a million mile flyer – however, most of their agents on the phone have no idea what I’m talking about when I recite this nugget back to them.
Anyway, this is a long way of saying, I know the airline really, really well. And when I fly, even with my family, I tend to fly with United, even though I’ve had my share of travel and customer service disasters (and you all know, regardless of what airline you fly, what I mean by that).
But does the airline know me? No. Not at all. And today was a remarkable example of that in action.
So today my wife and I decide that we’re going to fly to Arizona for Thanksgiving – all five of us. Her family is there, and we’ve decided to join them. Since this is not a work trip, I use Expedia to check flights between the Bay area and Tucson – I’ve been there many times in the past, and I know direct flights are very hard to come by. Turns out, there is a direct flight, and it’s on United, and – double luck! – it’s just at the times (departure and return) that I want to fly. Economy seats are priced, roundtrip, on Expedia at about $440 each. Pricey, but it’s not like I have a lot of choice. It’s a week away, and there are no other direct flights. And yeah, it’s true, I’m willing to pay the extra hundred bucks to not have to connect through Vegas, LA, or Phoenix when travelling with three kids. Anyway.
Experience told me that the kind of reservation I wanted to make would require human interaction – five people, possible upgrades, etc. – so armed with the flight numbers and times, I called United directly.
Now, it’s Sunday afternoon around 1 pm. After running a gauntlet of voice recognition driven commands, and finally asking, five times in a row, for an “Agent! Agent! AGENT! …. yes….AGENT!” I get…an agent.
Now United, like many large companies who must handle a large volume of customer service, has a preponderance of customer service agents based in India. They are almost universally pleasant, professional, and courteous, but, I have found, they are also not very good at colouring outside the lines. So when I call in the middle of a Sunday afternoon, with three kids in the background, asking whether there’s a good business fare for my wife and I, and whether we might get an upgrade from economy, and oh by the way is there any chance the flight leaving at 7 pm is relatively empty, and if so, might we get seats in economy near the front, etc. – well, it’s been my experience that nine times out of 10, the call will devolve to the point where neither I nor the still professional but clearly flummoxed customer service agent are having any fun. At all.
Which is exactly what happened. However, this call took a turn for the worse not based on a lack of communication, but on the real time usury of United’s pricing system. Herewith an edited transcript of my conversation with the agent:
ME: So how much would it be if my wife and I flew in Business, and my kids flew in Economy?
AGENT: There is no Business class on this plane.
ME: OK, so that means there are two classes of service?
ME: OK, great, so let me ask it another way…how much would it be if my wife flew in the more expensive class, and my kids flew in economy? I just want to know in case it’s a good deal. Otherwise, maybe I’ll try to get upgraded….
AGENT: So you want two First Class tickets?
ME: Erhm…well, no, I want to know how much a First Class ticket would cost?
AGENT: OK hold on….(45 second delay)…OK, that would be $1633.20.
ME: But it’s a 90 minute flight!
ME: (Recalling the Expedia fares of around $440). And how much are the economy seats?
AGENT: For three?
ME: Erhm….well, I just want to know how much an Economy class fare is.
AGENT: Let me check. (90 seconds go by…..) OK. Economy class fare for three would come out to $447 for each, round trip.
ME: (Relieved) That’s great. Let’s just do five Economy fares then. No way am I going to pay nearly four times the Economy rate to sit in First!
AGENT: Erhm….(30 second delay)….well sir, just a minute.
ME: Is there a problem?
AGENT: Well, no. Can I put you on hold?
ME: (Fearing the Interminable Purgatory Of Hold) NO! Please don’t put me on hold. What’s the problem?
AGENT: Well, it’s just that the system is now giving me a new price for each Economy fare roundtrip.
ME: (Fearing the system). Why?
AGENT: Well, before, I asked for just three seats. Now you want five.
AGENT: And well, there are only six left on that flight.
ME: So….what is the system saying to you now?
AGENT: Sir, the price is now $2011.
ME: Holy shit.
AGENT: Yes, so can I put you on hold and see what is going on?
ME: Yes, please do. Please.
For the next five or so minutes, I am put on hold, which for no additional fee includes a very peppy rendition of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, a tune I never, ever thought I’d dislike. But over the years, United has put that faith to the test.
About a minute in, I start to twitch. I’m not one to hold well, and my wife is now hovering over my computer, asking what is going on. So I fire up Twitter and post this plea:
Of course, nothing happens immediately (and as of this post, still nothing…8 hours later). So back in the moment, I have a revelation – I think I have a special phone number for Super Premium United Customers, one that I got at about the same time I was told about the Million Mile thingy.
I look it up in my contacts and yes, there it is. So I call it on my cel, even as I’m on hold with United.
Same voice recognition tree. Same result – I’m screaming “AGENT” about 30 seconds or so in.
And after some reconciliation between me and the computer, an agent does indeed come on. A very nice Indian gentleman who asks how he might help me.
ME: Er, hello. Forgive me if my voice sound strained but so far I’ve had a rather rough time of it with United’s pricing system. I have a complicated fare I’m hoping you might help me with. (Secretly, I’m hoping I can find a backdoor into United pricing heaven, of course…)
AGENT: How can I help you?
ME: Well, I’d like it if you can price for me five economy seats on (this) flight on (that date)?
ME: (A bit sheepishly) Uhm, and…can I ask you something?
AGENT: Certainly sir.
ME: Is this the super special line?
ME: Well, it’s just that I called a number that I thought was for premium customers, but the voice mail tree was the same and you didn’t seem to know who I was….
AGENT: I am a reservation agent.
ME: Oh yes, I know. I was just wondering if you…
AGENT: How can I help you?
ME: OK. Well, tell you what. Can I give you my mileage number? Would that help?
AGENT: Certainly sir.
ME: (Gives number).
AGENT: Thank you. Now, how can I help you.
ME: Well, again, I’d like it if you can price for me five economy seats on (this) flight on (that date)? It’s just that I tried this already, and I got a really, really high price on the seats, higher even than the price for First Class, and the agent told me it was because there were only six seats left, and I wanted more than three, and…anyway, I don’t think it’s fair to pay that much for seats that were quoted to me at $447 during the same phone call, is it?
AGENT: I don’t know, sir.
ME: But really, I mean, well, it’s usury, isn’t it? It’s not fair?! When I asked for just three seats, I got a quote of $447 each!
AGENT: Sir, it’s just how the system works.
ME: But … (resisting the urge to scream “DON’T YOU KNOW I’M A GOOD CUSTOMER WHO SHOULDN’T BE TREATED THIS WAY?!!”)
At this point, the other agent came back on my other line. I told the agent on my cel phone that I’d call back and returned to my original call.
(ORIGINAL) AGENT: Sir?
ME: Yes, I’m here.
AGENT: Sir, I’ve checked the system, and that’s the price.
ME: So you are telling me the “system” is now saying that instead of paying two times $1633 for First and three times $447 for Economy, if I want to pay for only Economy seats, I have to pay five times $2011?
AGENT: I am afraid so sir.
ME: That’s more than $10,000 to fly my family 90 minutes!
ME: OK. Look, I understand this is not your fault. Can I speak to a supervisor?
AGENT: Certainly. Can I put you on hold?
Look, it’s late, and I have a long day tomorrow, so I won’t bother you with the resultant blow by blow. Suffice to say, after about another 30 minutes on the phone, I managed to get five economy class seats on the flight, at an average of about $550 each. It took a lot of wheedling, patience, arguing, anger and resolution, not to mention delivery of information I had already delivered more than once. The fellow, who was a supervisor, even tossed out the $25 per ticket “ticketing fee” that he was supposed to tack on (not that I knew about that till he told me he was waiving it, sensing he’d lose me entirely if he forced another $125 in fees on me. He was right, and I do appreciate the gesture).
So in the end, we’re on the damn flight.
I got off and I told my wife, in so many words, that we’re going to see f*cking Grandpa for f*cking Thanksgiving in f*cking Tucson after all.
So thanks United, for making it that much more special! As you might imagine, I can’t wait for Virgin, Southwest, or Jet Blue to start direct service between SF and Tucson. Because when they do, I won’t think twice about switching.
Until then, however, you’ve got my business. But if I were in your shoes, I’d be very, very nervous about the future of yours.
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