Put the “Customer” back into “Customer Service”

Now that is the fourth day of the new year, I am kind of surprised that it took me so long for my first rant of the year. I am sure all could not wait for it. Not to worry folks. It’s time.

In response to my sister’s post about her good times with United Airlines, I thought I would be the good brother (Yep, still Steve Quixote), and use social networking as it is meant to be used. I tweeted her post directly to UA, and also posted it on their FB page. The following conversation was the result of that post. I don’t think any rant can improve on it. I have changed the names of the people involved to protect the … well innocent is not the word, but participants works. I have to admit I found the whole conversation and odd mixture of amusing, infuriating, and plain SAD. Be prepared for a long ride (pun intended):


A: So we should not fly United because this person had a bad experience?

ME: This is one person. I have heard many similar tales about United. And also have had similar experiences. They do not care about their customers.

A: I’ve heard similar stories on every airline. United has always looked after me whenever I fly so they do care.

ME: Have you ever had to change a ticket last-minute. You are right most of the airlines do it the same. The problem is their policies when something unexpected happens. Life happens that sometimes cause last-minute changes to travel plans. For united (or any airline) to say sure you can change your ticket, it will just cost you the price of a new ticket (but we are kind, we will wave the actual fee which is minimal compared to the price of the ticket) is absurd. Any other business that had similar customer service policies would be out of business in no time.

B: 500,000 fly them on busy days. You’ve read maybe a dozen complaints a day? United is a company. Companies don’t have the capacity to care, however, the vast majority of their 86,000 employees do care and they work very hard to make sure you get to where you need to be, safely and efficiently. Does it always work out? No, of course not, but much of the solution and ultimately your travel experience comes down to how you yourself react to the situation.

ME: So how would you react if you had to go to a last-minute funeral of a close family member and they told you we can change your flight. Just buy a new ticket. Oh and you won’t get your original money back.

B: Did you mean “can’t”? Condolences on your loss. It isn’t about how anybody would react, it is about understanding and doing the right thing based on what was agreed to. It depends on the fare bucket of the original ticket and how you purchased it, but you usually can change your ticket online, and then follow the rules for such occurrences to potentially claw back the fee. Depending on how you paid for the original ticket, you might get some relief from your credit card benefits.

Undoubtedly, United will ask for details to see if they can help.

C: “The problem is their policies when something unexpected happens.”

And that’s why the good lord invented insurance.

ME: You just said that 500,000 of them fly every day with only a few dozen problems a day. OK. So why is it so tough for the airline to waive those arbitrary conditions under specific circumstances. Are they really losing so much money? People who buy those discount seats are buying them for a reason, they can’t afford the full price. So under the circumstances of bereavement or some other emergency, why is it so impossible to hold that ticket price, and not effectively charge the price of a whole new ticket, especially if it does happen so infrequently?

Insurance is as much a scam as the whole pricing scheme.

UNITED: Steve Kramer appreciate you sharing this post. We have reached out to Lisa on twitter for details. Thanks. ^SQ

ME: Thank you. That is all I ask 🙂bottom_line

B: Insurance would have mattered here.

D: “So why is it so tough for the airline to waive those arbitrary conditions under specific circumstances.”Steve, let me ask you this–how is the person suppose to prove that in fact the reason for the change was due to a death? The reason the policy is so strict is because when it was lax, people took advantage of it. It led to the policy in place where the UA employee doesn’t get to decide, they only apply policy. You ask why they can’t make a decision, and I ask you how can they be certain the person standing in front of them is being 100% truthful?
As sucky as it may seem, it’s the ones who abused the system that causes it, and the airline has no choice but to enforce it the same for everyone.

ME: The funeral home was prepared to fax the airline whatever information they needed to know that the request was legitimate. Come on this is the computer age. Information can be exchanged in mere minutes when necessary.

You are absolutely right B. Insurance would have mattered here. But like most insurance, it is only effective when something goes wrong. The companies make their money on the assumption that it will not go wrong. Since, as I am being told here it does not actually go wrong all that often, is it truly cost-effective to pay for insurance that in general gives you nothing in return when you are on a tight budget? It is just a convenient way for the airlines not to have to take any responsibility when something DOES go wrong.

D: Mr. Kramer, most credit cards come with Travel Insurance automatically. If you use said CC, you are covered. I think that is what B was making a reference towards.

B: Airlines are only responsible for certain costs. As D pointed out, credit cards often go well beyond what airlines are responsible, but most people fail to read the little booklets they get every year from the credit card company. I don’t buy insurance, apart from catastrophic medical re-patriotism insurance. Everything else comes for free on a few of my cards. I’ve been stranded a couple of times by weather, which the airline doesn’t pay for, and I simply walk over to the hotel while thousands of others camp out in the airport. I guarantee you that many of those people could have had a free hotel room, but they never read the finer print for their card benefits.

ME: I can’t speak to the credit card issue, because I am not sure how the tickets were paid for. It is a legitimate point, but still sidesteps the issue which is the airline did not really do all it could to help in this hard situation. I understand rules are necessary. I also understand that many try to take advantage. But exceptions can be made for appropriate circumstances, and I believe this is one of them. It would have been very easy for someone to pull my sister aside, and verify that she had a legitimate emergency. It would also have been very easy to simply make a change to the outbound ticket without changing the return flight (which is what they did). And it would have been very easy to waive costs in this instance. By doing this in such circumstances, the airline improves their name, and we would be recommending then instead of berating them for their mechanical customer service policy.

B: I believe that most often the urgency of travel dictates that things get settled up afterward… sort of like what is happening now, only assisted by the social media team (which has improved greatly over the last 6 months). The best thing to do in these circumstances is to read the applicable rules on the website for compassionate fares and change fees. It can be tough to do or understand in times of stress. The airline does a lot of this (and earned brownie points from me for assisting in an urgent family matter… and this was pre-merger, before I was even known to the UA side).

D: “But exceptions can be made for appropriate circumstances,”And how do they differentiate between what is legitimate, and what is not? You mentioned the Funeral home offered to fax information. You realize how easy that can be impersonated? I understand your point, I really do. It sucks that others have made it such that it’s come to this. But again, what choice does a business have when it’s people use illegitimate methods in order to bypass airline policy? It does suck, and perhaps next time the person will indeed side with the passenger. Just understand that when they don’t, it’s not because they are callous our uncaring, it’s because they simply are following airline policy.

ME: Oh we have no issue with the customer service person. They did the best that they could. It is the policy itself that is the issue. You say it is easy to fake a funeral home calling. Look up the funeral home, get its phone number and call them yourself. That way you can verify they are legit too. Basically you guys did not even make an effort to verify, and just assume the worst case scenario. That, in my book is not only bad customer service, but not even an attempt at customer service. You are basically saying the bottom line is much more important than customer satisfaction. The other issue is you were effectively selling her the same seat twice. And that is a fairly common practice with airlines even when there are no customer service issues. How are you going to justify that one?

C: ” But like most insurance, it is only effective when something goes wrong. The companies make their money on the assumption that it will not go wrong. Since, as I am being told here it does not actually go wrong all that often, is it truly cost-effective to pay for insurance that in general gives you nothing in return when you are on a tight budget?”So I guess we can all assume that you don’t have car insurance or home insurance?

ME: If I could avoid it I would. Insurance is the biggest legalized scam our nation has in my opinion.

Or any nation for that matter.

And even if I approved of insurance, it still does not absolve the airline of having a horrible policy when it comes to emergency changes. The simple fact of the matter is the primary product of any airline is customer service. And the airline basically provides customer service based on how much someone pays. The ticket price has very little to do with the seat that one is sitting in, and almost everything to do with how many restrictions on the ticket there are. This issue would not have been a problem whatsoever if someone had paid full price for the ticket, yet the seat would have remained the same.

“United is a company. Companies don’t have the capacity to care,” that is the bottom line. I am not saying individual employees don’ try to do their best, but the bottom line is the company itself does not care about its customers unless they are spending a lot of money. Lets say you were in a restaurant and you get a meal. Before you even get a bite somebody knocks your meal of the table. Nobody actually sees it except you. If the restaurant operated the way the airline does, they would assume you are lying, bring you a new meal, and charge you for both. Tell me, would you eat in that restaurant again? On the other hand, if the restaurant said let us replace it at our cost, even if it ment losing a few dollars for that one meal, would you come back?

Please stop making excuses for a policy that basically favors the company instead of the customer. If that is the business model you guys choose. Fine. The truth is you have a captive audience and there is nothing we can do about it. But don’t ask us to sit down quietly and simply accept your greedy practices just because you can get away with it. It is funny how many non US airlines don’t seem to have problems with their emergency change policies like the US airlines do. How come they can afford to do it and you cant’?

B: The policy also favors the law. They are an SEC listed company. They have to have stringent controls on discounts and handouts.I agree with you on the general and medical insurance front. The insurance companies get rewarded for inefficiency.

ME: Just because it is the law does not make it right. We all know that many of those laws favor the corporate structure rather than the consumer. And again I am not opposed to the policy in general. I just think that there should some flexibility at the discretion of the customer service members (even if it requires supervisory approval). Try applying innocent until proven guilty in our business practices as well. I know people try to take advantage when they can, but they are really the minority. And in this specific case, what is the likelihood of a hysterical woman cutting a trip with her family from cold and snowy New England to HAWAII for a couple of days because she has to bury her father is lying. Seriously. Why would someone even think she was. Especially when it is completely confirmable?

E:  Google “rainy day fund”

ME: I am getting the impression that most of you responding have a lot of disposable income. Not everyone has high-end credit that takes care of travel insurance. Not everyone has extra money to sit in a bank waiting for such emergencies. Many of your solutions would have dealt with the money issue. But none absolve the airline from removing the customer from customer service. And since that is the airline’s main product, I would call it an epic fail. Stop passing the buck and take responsibility for your own product, and remember that no business is successful without customers. Therefore a little compassion at times is not a profit loss.

F: Steve, have you actually looked at how much it costs to add travel insurance to a ticket ? It’s minimal and if it’s important, then choose to pay for it over another expense.

ME: That is still not the issue. It still does not justify double charging for seats. It still does not justify that the company’s policy is “good customer service” only if you have enough money to afford it. And even if they HAD travel insurance, they still would have has to dish out the 1400 dollars the airline initially asked out of their own pocket at first. Money that they did NOT have. I would be willing to bet that the “minimal cost” of flight insurance is still a lot more of a burden on someone with a very tight budget then the loss of selling one ticket that has actually already been sold is to a large airline.

G: Steve, there is no use arguing your point with these brown-nosers. They only care about themselves and United, not you. Notice how much time they seem to have on their hands. If United cared, a representative would have contacted you on here.

ME: I was just going to say that haha. Fortunately I believe United has actually made an effort to contact my sister (who is the true victim of the policy). I was enjoying the debate for a while but as you say it is ultimately pointless. Thanks for at least showing one person cares about the human side and not just the bottom line.


Need I say more?