“May I see your passport?”
I’ve heard this request many times. However, as a US citizen, this was the first time I heard it while traveling within the United States. Sometimes customer service just is not what you expect!
The day before Halloween I was on my way to South Carolina with two friends. We were all heading to the same convention and coincidentally happened to be on the same United Airlines flights from Boston to Dulles to Columbia. We arrive in Dulles with just enough time to not quite make our next flight. Okay, that sort of thing happens. It’s a few hours until the next flight, so we got to spend the day at what is probably the Dulles airiport on Earth. At around 9:30pm, our 9:50 flight gets delayed to 10:15. At 10:15, it’s delayed to 11:15pm and then to 12:15am. I ask the gate agent what’s going on, and he says it’s a mechanical problem and the part just arrived from another airport. A half hour later, he tells me they are bringing in another plane. Then there’s an announcement that the flight is delayed due to mechanical issues, but they expect to have it resolved soon. At 12:15am, United cancels the flight and sends us all to customer service to for rebooking. It was clear that we weren’t getting to our destination that night; at least we did get to see the Sox win the World Series.
The three of us get to the head of the customer service line. There are four people there, all of whom are working with us. One of them takes our boarding passes and that’s when he asked for passports. We assume he meant ID, and hand over our driver’s licenses.
“No, I need your passports.”
Now, I realize that Washington DC is arguably in its own reality, but last I checked we still don’t need passports to travel in and out of a Washington airport.
“I don’t carry my passport,” I reply.
“I need your passport to rebook you,” says the, and I realize this may sound oxymoronic, Customer Service representative.
“We’re American citizens traveling within the United States,” says one of my friends. “We don’t have passports with us.”
This triggers a conversation amongst the four representatives. The three of us, meanwhile, were pretty tired; it was around 12:45am by this point. I credit our exhaustion for our failing to realize how honored we were: we were standing face to face with Larry, Moe, Curly, and Shemp. This was the unexpected bit of customer service: a live performance by the legendary Three Stooges. Yes, I know, I just listed four names; I believe this marked the only time that Curley and Shemp ever appeared together. Eventually, Moe, who appeared to be in charge, decided that we didn’t need passports and managed to convince Shemp of this without poking him in the eye. We were rebooked on a flight leaving the next day. We then ask about hotel rooms.
“We only do that for mechanical problems,” says one of the Stooges. I think it was Curly this time.
“You announced it was a mechanical problem,” we point out.
They argue for a while.
“A bird hit the plane,” says Moe.
“Which plane? The original plane or the second plane?”
“A bird hit the plane,” says Moe.
Eventually, they agree to give us discount hotel vouchers. We then ask for our luggage. This triggers more debate before Larry informs us that it will take at least an hour to get our bags since, “no one is on duty.” Fine.
We head on over to baggage claim and start waiting. One of my friends makes a comment about checking with the baggage office. I manage to find it, and right outside the door what do I see? Our suitcases. Apparently, they’ve been sitting there all afternoon. There is also someone on duty. I explain to the woman in the office what is going on. This is the first she’s heard that the flight was cancelled. She releases our bags to us, and then double-checks the status of our flight. She informs us that the computer shows a mechanical problem, and provides us with hotel and meal vouchers. We manage to get to sleep around 2am, and at least get a few hours of rest before coming back to the airport at 11am for our next attempt. This one United agent really went out of her way to help us and made an absolutely miserable experience at least tolerable.
Here’s the problem: good customer service should not require finding the one person in the airport who is willing to do her job. The very fact that happened really says a great deal about how leadership at United Airlines views their customers. Good customer service is about recognizing that when you fail to deliver it’s not just an entry on the balance sheet; at best, it’s an inconvenience for some number of people. At worst, it can be a major problem. The least you can do is take steps to apologize and, in some way, mitigate the damage. Sure, at 12:30am maybe you can’t just book people on another flight that night. But looking for excuses to save the company a few dollars at the expense of your customers is simply foolish. I guess that United assumes that since there are limited choices in the airline business, they get to do what they want. That doesn’t build loyalty and it means that when people do have a choice, they won’t choose you.
Amazon.com, for example, has raised customer service almost to an art form. Whenever Iíve had a problem with a product Iíve ordered through them, itís been fixed immediately. Itís not just about the choices people have, but the stories they tell about your organization and other how people react to those stories and make choices. Sooner or later, the choices your potential and actual customers make will come back to your bottom line. In the end, itís the leadership at the top that sets the tone for what the customers will perceive. What are you doing to make sure that youíre leading in the right direction?