United: Terrible Customer Service >> How United Airlines Lost a Customer for Life

Post Summary:

  • The Situation: Setup
  • How Customer Service Handled my Situation
  • A Second Chance
  • The Policy
  • Contrast: An example of Google’s amazing customer service

The Setup

On Monday, Jan 7, 2019, I bought a round-trip ticket on united.com, as I’d done over a hundred times. It was a round-trip ticket from SNA-SFO for Thursday Jan 10, 2019 (first flight out in the morning, last flight back at night >> Reservation number DT5S2B).

I had a morning meeting in SF at 9:30am. The flight was scheduled to land at 8:23, but it usually lands earlier (as I mentioned, I’ve flown this flight many, many times).

This was a particularly important meeting, however. On Wed evening, I started to get concerned. Everything would have to be absolutely perfect for me to get to this meeting on time. I did not want to be late.

I explored what a car rental would cost to pick up at SNA and drop off at SFO. I could drive up Wed night and then just fly back Thurs. Car rental was only $35! I decided to do that to keep my mind at ease.

The meeting goes well and I carry on with my day. Again, I’ve flown this flight back many times as well and I’m Pre-Check, so I plan my arrival at SFO at 8:00pm; plenty of time.

Except, hmm, “My reservation can’t be found”.

How Customer Service Handled my Situation

I talk to a United agent. Apparently, since I skipped my morning flight, United cancelled my entire reservation. I had no flight back home! If I wanted to get on the flight, I’d have to buy a new ticket!

I skipped the morning flight. I did not ask for a refund. Don’t you guys, as a policy, oversell flights? Free money for you.

I’m calmly ask: “Your policy is to cancel my flight back without any notice to me?”

“That’s our policy, sir”, I’m told.

“Then, please refund me for the 2nd leg – that you cancelled without notifying me – and you can use those funds to buy the new ticket.”

“Sorry, you’ll have to call to book a new reservation. And you’ll have to request a refund through our website”

By this time, it’s about 8:10pm. The flight is boarding…

What I Did

It’s 8:30pm. There were no other flights out that night on other airlines. So, I did what I did the previous night. I rented a car to drive back home.

Having slept very little the previous night (from driving up) and enduring a long day, I was exhausted. But what choice did I have? I wanted to get home to my family.

I rented a car and started the drive down. It was dark and foggy a lot of the way. A lot of the time, I couldn’t see more than 20 ft in front of me. I had to stop several times to take cat naps.

I managed to get home safely at ~5:00am. What would normally be a 5.5 hr drive, it took me 8 hrs because of my breaks to sleep. Ugh.

Customer Service – 2nd Chance

On the drive home, I called United Customer Service. I asked to speak with a supervisor. I wanted to give them an opportunity to make good. My expectation was an apology and a refund.

Instead, all I received was a terse, “It is clearly stated in the policy”.

“Do you actually read the terms and services on websites”.

“Yes, I do sir”.

“So you’re saying that there is nothing you can do. I had to rent a car and drive in the middle of the night. I am never going to fly United again. You are losing a customer for life. You’re okay with this?”

“There’s nothing I can do”.

“Bye Bye, United”.

I then turned to Twitter and vented, tagging @United. They actually responded. Through private messaging though, they couldn’t call me. And they simply pointed me to the refund page on the website.

About an hour or two later, I called United back. I asked for a Supervisor. But got directed to the same one as earlier.

So frustrating. I’m done with United.

I will do everything I can to never fly United again.

The Policy

Firstly, it’s an absurdly dumb policy!

Secondly, how am I supposed to know that they’d cancel?

This totally ruined my night. But I could imagine grander scenarios where this really really screwed someone else.

I went on United.com and started to book a flight. I had to see where this policy is stated.

Reviewing the booking process on United.com

The Terms and Conditions at the bottom are trivial.

There is a link for “fare rules and restrictions”, but look at this gobbly-goop. I mean, c’mon! A. Who’s going to click on this link? B. How is one supposed to decipher this?

So, I called United again. I wanted to find out where this policy existed.

I shared my story with the call center agent. I was very calm and apologetic to her, but I was adamant that she find me where this policy is stated.

I walked her through the booking process. We couldn’t find it.

She put me on hold.

“It’s stated on your receipt, in your email confirmation”.

I find the email: “It is? Okay, I have the email. Show me where. Show me where it states that if I don’t show-up, you cancel my whole itinerary”.

“Uh, please hold on again”

Several minutes later, she comes back: “It’s stated in Contract of Carriage”.

“Where’s that?”

“Hold please”

She comes back again: “It’s on the website on the link at the bottom of the site”.

And yes, there it is. A link at the bottom of the page to the Contract of Carriage.

A couple clicks through and you do see that Rule 5C:

So, yes, technically it’s there.

It’s still an absurd rule!

But really, CUSTOMER EXPERIENCE.

HOW THE FUDGE AM I SUPPOSED TO KNOW THIS?!!!

Do they really expect people to follow this labyrinth to understand all these little policies, rules, and/or regulations?!

Let me share a recent experience with Google…

Customer Service Done Right

I bought a pair of Google Pixel Buds last April.

In December, I accidentally left them in a pocket and they wound up in the washing machine and dryer. Argh! Totally my fault.

I called Google Support.

I explained what happened and just asked, “What does my warranty cover? Is there anything you can do?”

My expectation was that this was NOT covered under warranty. Honestly, I was just hoping for a discount code to buy a replacement pair.

Google’s answer (paraphrased): “Sir, unfortunately, this situation is not covered under warranty. But, here’s what I’m going to do for you. As a one-time courtesy, I’m going to send you a new one, but you have to send me yours back. I will charge you, but once we receive your returned (broken) ones, I will refund the charge”.

“Oh WOW!!! Thank you Thank you Thank you!”

Know what I bought myself for Christmas?

…A pair of wired Pixel Buds, a Google Hub, and a couple Google Minis.

Google empathized with me and demonstrated that they value me, as a consumer. I’m grateful for it and am more than happy to continue to be a Google customer and use their products and services.

The Wrap

I have a family of five. I travel somewhat frequently for work.

United, you lost me by your horrible business practices.

I (and we) will no longer be United passengers or consumers.

The Instant Pot Phenomenon

We got an Instant Pot for Christmas. I’d heard of Instant Pot before. Many times. But, when I think about it, I’ve NEVER seen an ad for one. EVER!!!

No Advertising Marketing!

I decided to look up the founder’s story and found this: https://www.cnbc.com/2017/11/24/why-robert-wangs-instant-pot-is-a-bestseller-on-amazon.html

“To be honest with you, we haven’t spent much money on advertising,” Wang says. “In fact, that is not part of the business plan. We really spend money on product development and customer support.”

Robert Wang, a fellow Canadian and Techie, invented this. It’s an inspiring story, actually.

The problem: “What if there is a machine which is smart enough, which can automate the entire cooking process for us, so that we can fix dinner when we come back from work.”

While my perception of this brand (or category, which they created, or rather re-invented?) was neutral, I understood that it was this “craze”; almost a cult-like following had developed.

A non-cooking friend told me about theirs over the holidays. And since the price point is very reasonable, that put me over the top.

A relentless focus on a product development that meets a consumer’s problem. Instant Pot built it and their consumers propelled them to amazing growth.

Great business story!!!

Podcast Must Listen: Masters of Scale :: Charity Water

Reid Hoffman’s Master of Scale podcast episode that dropped today is AMAZING on so many levels! “TO SCALE, YOU MUST MASTER THE SKILL OF STORYTELLING”

Link to episode: https://mastersofscale.com/#/scott-harrison-to-scale-you-must-master-the-art-of-storytelling/

It’s the story of Scott Harrison of Charity: Water.

I found within it:

  • Life lessons
  • Marketing lessons
  • An amazing story, amazingly told

I dare you to watch this video “The Spring” and:

  • Not shed a tear
  • Not believe that clean water is one of the most impactful efforts that we can do for civilization
  • Not pull out your wallet to subscribe to this amazing charity (all charities should operate this way!)

Rise of the Chief Data Officer (CDO)

Image shows number of CXOs in USA for companies with >1000 employees. In other words, only ~5% have a Chief Data Officer (CDO). Yet, how many are undergoing “Digital Transformations” and/or trying to become “Data-Driven” and/or trying to leverage AI (which depends on (good) data)?

I believe that the CDO role is a huge gap at corporations and it presents a huge business opportunity; not to mention a probable necessity going forward in order to, just simply, compete.

If you segment just “Retailers”: CEO = 497 | CMO = 154 | CDO = 8

This means in Retail, only 1.61% of large retailers have a CDO!

My advice: Hire a CDO.

Here’s the ROI: We all know data is siloed. But instead of breaking silos, I see LOBs duplicating data across the org to suit their needs; thereby creating bigger silos. That’s a lot of duplicated expense and effort, as indiv LOBs protect their budget and interests.

Example, one company recently spoke with, Marketing and Analytics use Adobe Analytics. But Data Science chooses to use raw web logs.

A CDO can put the people, processes, and tech in place to streamline data across the org.

N.B. All #’s are from LinkedIn Sales Navigator, so probably not exact, but good enough for % analysis. Also, I included “Chief Analytics Officer” in the CDO category.

Why you should Build your CDP

Customer Data Platform (CDP). The more I read and learn about CDPs, the more I am convinced that most, large companies should have one. The CDP hype is real. BUT (I like big BUTs and I cannot lie), I’m a huge advocate for BUILD (Vs. Buy), in this case. I would not go with a CDP SaaS vendor.

Of course, there is always exception to the rule and, as with anything in technology fitting, it depends. But I would strongly consider to build in-house, by default.

This is a shift from my norm. I’ve always been on the vendor-side of things, in favor of the business case to BUY solutions. But, I see this as so strategic and core to a company, that it’s worth the investment to build it. There are tools on the market today to make this process feasible and achievable (more on that later).

When Caesars Entertainment declared bankruptcy a few years back, “The most valuable of the individual assets being fought over by creditors is the data collected over the last 17 years through the company’s Total Rewards loyalty program”. I’m going to argue that that is their CDP. This is a good write-up about it: https://www.forbes.com/sites/bernardmarr/2015/05/18/when-big-data-becomes-your-most-valuable-asset/#117b5a741eef

When you build a CDP, you are building an incredibly valuable asset.

Value is built through asset ownership, not renting.

Taken from this article (https://www.martechadvisor.com/articles/data-management/what-is-a-customer-data-platform-and-what-are-the-benefits/), the CDP has three primary functions:

  1. They pull in customer data from the disparate data systems of your choice
  2. They match, merge and cleanse this data into a unified record for each customer
  3. They make these records visible to your other marketing tools to ensure the consistent treatment of customers

I’m going to add #4, from this Gartner blog (https://blogs.gartner.com/martin-kihn/what-is-this-thing-we-call-a-cdp/):

4. It is owned and operated by marketers

I like the way the author opened the article:

A new technology appears, seemingly from the ether, and promises to change our lives. Customer data integration, labeling and storage problems will disappear. Identities will merge. You’ll be able to find new audiences until your ribs squeak and deliver them to any execution system in the barn.

Oh, and it will scale, rarely fail and enable (yes) true one-to-one marketing.

The name of this magic machine is … CRM. It was 1998. Companies piled in, dropping $3.5 billion a year on apps and databases alone – consulting fees not included – and yet, by 2001, 50% of CRM projects “failed.”

The same thing happened, on a lesser scale, during the great marketing automation boom of the 2000s. And it’s happening again.

So, the CDP is supposed to accomplish what the CRM cannot do and what the DMP does not do. But we cannot forget Primary Function #4: It is owned and operated by Marketers.

If you thought the relationship between Sales and Marketing was challenging, it pales in comparison between the diatribe between Marketing and IT; hence, the rise of Marketing Technology teams? I wrote a post about this recently and highlighted this article by on chiefmartec by Scott Brinker, written in 2009 (the classics never die) .

Let’s be honest, these are massive projects; however, the potential value is huge. It’s no surprise that there are over 60 vendors in just a few short years, with a few of them pivoting to adopt this acronym as their primary identity. This is a project you only want to do once.

Do you want to be vendor-locked?

Many CMOs may not even live to reap the full benefits of their investment, given that the median tenure-ship of a CMO is 31 months (according to this source )

You have a CRM.

You have a DMP.

You have a Marketing Automation platform.

You have an EDW and possibly a Data Lake.

You have an enterprise BI solution.

Do you really need a CDP vendor?

(And I’ll double down on that question, if you’ve already implemented a SaaS Customer Journey solution, which most CDPs can/should be able to provide)

The one case where I’d fold quickly on the CDP vendor case is Datorama, if and only if, you’re already full stack Salesforce —negotiate hard at renewal time! 🙂

Here’s the kicker, the most expensive (and important) component of the CDP is your 1st-party behavioral data. The storage, but mainly the processing, of your digital analytics clickstream to match, merge, and cleanse this data into a unified record for each customer. That’s a lot of data! And you’re likely already storing it somewhere.

And if you’re a brand conglomerate, do you have a CDP per brand or do you aggregate or can you have both? I think you should have both, but this would be cost prohibitive (or hugely wasteful) with a SaaS vendor.

I’m going to circle back to Primary Function #4 because this a big reason folks choose a CDP vendor. …“My IT is backlogged; they can’t deliver in my required timeline; I want control”. All very likely true.

If I put my CMO hat on, I would find a consultant to architect the system. If done properly, this system would be a silo-buster and could help democratize A LOT of data throughout the org (see post on Data Silos here). Data/BI Analysts will go to town. Data Science can reap huge time savings. Many internal projects can spawn from a CDP; E.g., Marketing attribution. Endless possibilities, really.

Now, that then brings up the question of “Who’s budget?”. Ah, the joy of politics.

I will argue that the CMO should take this initiative on. They are the first and primary use-case. If I’m correct, that this will benefit multiple orgs, then that’s a big win for the CMO. That’s a CMO with enterprise-wide vision. That’s a future CEO.

In terms of time, there are many tools on the market that can be used to dramatically accelerate this project. In fact, I’ll put it out there, that with the right tools, this can be accomplished within several months.

If IT can’t handle it, I would consider starting with a consulting firm that can operate as a managed service, knowing that I can bring the resources in-house later, if that makes sense. This would be hosted in a virtual private cloud (and hopefully a solution would be flexible enough to not lock me into any one cloud vendor, either).

To conclude, if you don’t have a CDP project going, you’d be remiss if you didn’t get one going as soon as possible. But look inward first.

Why IT and Marketing are Diametrically Opposed [commentary]

[LinkedIn Post]

When Business and IT clash, it’s the customer who loses. Everyday you stagnate, you put your customers at risk. When you keep your data siloed, it’s your customer’s experience that suffers.

Amazon has over 500K employees and they are foster a culture with  “Day 1” mentality; a mantra meant to convey that the company will never stop being a start-up.

Has any company in history disrupted as many individual companies and distinct industries as Amazon?

I’ve been on the vendor side for over 12 years now, selling technology into various businesses. Business wants to be nimble and move fast. IT is often opposed and it’s not their fault, necessarily.

It’s a classic scenario.

This old article by Scott Brinker absolutely nails it on the head.

I believe these opposing goals has helped fuel the rise of SaaS, as businesses could by-pass IT. But with Data being such a huge asset (and security risk), the pendulum is swinging back a bit. Business must work with IT.

“We’re a big company, we move slowly”

Okay, but who suffers? YOUR CUSTOMER.

 

Last I checked Amazon is a big company too.

They put their customer first.

It’s always Day 1 at Amazon.

Brand Affinity is Created by Great Customer Experiences

[LinkedIn Post]

Apple’s greatest asset is one that you cannot see, feel, or touch. That is, its Brand Affinity. Buffet is not a technology investor, but he bought APPL because he saw “an extraordinary consumer franchise”. Apple customers are “very, very, very locked in, at least psychologically and mentally, to the product you are using. [The iPhone] is a very sticky”.

I noticed one of my connections wrote a lot about Toyota. I asked him: “What’s your affinity with Toyota”. He told me about a story when he was younger, how he was in a pretty bad car accident with his family, but luckily nobody got hurt and he attributed that to the safety of the Toyota vehicle. He is a Toyota customer for life.

My kids play a lot of Fortnite. It’s a free game, but players buy V-Bucks for new skins, etc. [Aside: As a parent, Fortnite is the most expensive free game there is!]. I bet if Redbull or Monster or equiv, purchased the ability to brand the Chug Jug or Shield Potion, they would create a positive brand affinity to millions of youth, for life.

Brand affinity is created by great customer experiences. I believe that the more bland or generic the product is, the greater effort you need to put on your customer service/marketing/engagement experiences.

[More to come at a later date]

[Article Thoughts] Want to Really Understand Your Customer Data? Try Hiring a Scientist

[Posted on LinkedIn]

Here is the article: http://www.adweek.com/digital/blinded-by-data-science/

I bet Nike accelerated ROI from their customer data by years by buying Zodiac.

Here’s the typical path…

Execs read that Data Science is hot, so they start to build out a small team. Some value is seen, but putting models into production, specifically ones with high data volume, velocity, and variety (e.g., Customer-related data) poses a significant engineering challenge. It’s hard.

It’s why Uber built Michelangelo, their ML platform. Putting this apps into production is hard. It seems to have taken Uber ~1.5 yrs to build Michaelangelo and I’m sure it’s constantly evolving, as it has a dedicated product team assigned to it.

By acquiring Zodiac, Nike inherits a Data Science platform or toolset centered around Customer data. Plus they get some (presumably good) data science talent, which is seemingly scarce. They’ve accelerated initiatives by a year+.

“Before analysts can crunch the data, apply machine learning and deliver new insights, brands need engineers who know how to store, manage and clean the data. And they need tech-savvy communicators who can take that analysis and translate it into business reality, Purcell says.”

SYNTASA can help you with this in less than one month!

#WorkSmarter #Clickstream

Is Radio Dead?

Cord-cutting and the imminent death of cable TV grabs all the headlines, but what about Radio? I honestly cannot remember the last time I tuned into a radio station in my car.

I currently subscribe to 31 different podcasts. I can’t keep up. There is so much great, on-demand content on subjects that interest me or with people that interest me. I’m learning all the time.

In fact, when I think about it, I spend more time listening to podcasts than I do watching video (including YouTube, Netflix, HBO, etc.). To be fair, Game of Thrones has my HIGHEST priority when it’s going.

I used to dread LA rush hour traffic. Now, I could argue that I look forward to it sometimes. “I get to catch up on my podcasts!”

Also think about when we’re all in self-driving cars. Will you prefer listening to radio or watching a movie?

Me? I’ll still be listening to my podcasts. Advertisers, you have a super-engaged audience and I don’t hear big brands sponsoring on podcasts (yet).

Why not dabble here while we’re in the early innings of the game and rates are relatively cheap. Good content persists and that sponsorship spot could provide great lifetime value (like content marketing).

Am I an outlier here or am I mainstream?

More Big Retails Closing Stores

https://www.foxbusiness.com/features/retail-apocalypse-23-big-retailers-closing-stores

Amazon is buying physical (Whole Foods Market), partnering with physical (Kohl’s), and building physical (AmazonGo) while traditional retailers shrink.

Right-sizing for the changing consumer behavior and adjusting the business to market conditions are part of business. 

There are some great brands on this list. Are they shrinking physical and ramping digital to fight back? Are they thinking about total Customer Experience?

I love American Apparel clothes and used to buy a lot from them. But I haven’t bought anything from them in many years. They’ve done a poor job of nurturing our relationship and I’ve moved on.

Maybe Toys ‘R’ Us should go all digital, create a toys-only marketplace online, and adopt “seasonal store” model, like Spirit Halloween.

Amazon is fantastic and has certainly changed my consumer behaviors. But they are not the end-all-be-all of retail. Companies that invest in the right areas and leverage their existing assets well, still have a great opportunity to thrive.