Sunday, July 26, 2009

On Human Interaction

Position ClosedImage by Jon Wiley via Flickr

This blog post is an experiment to see whether the person who monitors social media for United Airlines is watching their Google Alerts or Twitter search feeds. I don't have a formal grievance, and I'm not looking for anything from you other than the acknowledgment that you are paying attention, and taking steps to once again be able to invite people, without irony, to "fly the friendly skies of United."

I flew those purportedly friendly skies on United yesterday (Saturday, July 25, 2009), and actually found them to be pretty unfriendly. Other adjectives: indifferent, unconcerned, irritable, grumpy. I was exhausted, queasy from my cab ride to the Albany airport, and needing a little help. I assumed a submissive posture, tried to stay out of the way, and did my best to smile. Alas, my efforts were not reciprocated.

To their credit, United delivered the basics: air travel that takes off and lands safely. Both of my flights had the additional benefit of departing on time. The second flight actually arrived in Houston a bit early. I am very appreciative of those details we often take for granted, so thank you. However: United Airlines is apparently completely unaware that the current business climate requires more of a company than simply meeting the minimum standard. They are apparently also unaware that their brand is in trouble. Someone needs to intervene, and fast. United: get busy training your employees to value the customers you have, and to do right by them. Re-brand yourself to be identified with fantastic customer service. You might survive. Until then, customers have choices. Just sayin'.

I understand that the company is in trouble, and that your employees are as worried as everyone else about their job security and how far their salary doesn't go. I get it that it's irritating when the infrequent fliers (like me) haven't looked at the web site to be aware of new policies. I also get it that these employees work for long hours at low pay, and probably wanted to be home with their families instead of working the early shift on a Saturday. I accept responsibility for my part of my own difficulties yesterday. I could have avoided the shock of a last-minute charge if I had looked at the web site for their carry-on and baggage check policies. I would have made different choices for how I packed. Despite the fact that I teach an awareness practice (the Feldenkrais Method), it doesn't make me perfect, or aware of EVERYTHING. I became aware -- I learned -- that there's a lot more to traveling well in the current economic climate than in simpler times.

A friend recently reminded me of a quotation that should be part of every company's customer service training. "Be kinder than necessary-everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle."
Customers are doing the best they can. Traveling is stressful. Airline patrons are traveling to funerals, on family emergencies, traveling with children, traveling without children, traveling for work; pre-occupied, tense, self-absorbed. They just want to get where they are going, and a little human kindness can go a long way. I've long been an advocate of service employees who have to put up with surliness from The American Public on a daily basis. The person who can persevere on the job and stay calm, friendly, and helpful, is a treasure to the company, and a blessing to each customer. Each person just wants some quality in human interaction; some empathy, some kindness, no matter where they are. And especially if they are about to be inconvenienced.

So, United: here's what would have been nice:

Instead of: "You have to check that bag. You can only have two carry-ons," and "It's $20 to check the bag."
It would have been nicer: "I'm sorry, Ma'am, but you're only allowed two items to carry on. May I take that for you?" and "Unfortunately, we've had to adopt a policy of charging for checked baggage, even on the first item. Would you like to try to re-pack your carry-on so everything fits in the one bag? Otherwise, the fee is $X."

Instead of: irritated attitude and disappearing act when the last bit of my drink spilled after a bumpy patch, and I rang the call button for the flight attendant to bring some paper towels.
It would have been nicer: "Oh, let me help you with that. Here are some paper towels. Do you need some more? I'll be right back. May I take that blanket for you, it's probably wet, too. Let me see if I can find you another one. Would you like another Coke?"

Instead of: "Yeah, you'll really have to run for it now" after a delay at the arrival gate at Dulles, when the flight attendant knew of my tight connection to Houston.
It would have been nicer: "Oh, so sorry for the delay, you'll really have to hurry. I'll call over to the gate for your connecting flight and tell them you are on your way, and to please hold the flight for you."

Unfortunately, United Airlines, you have a bad reputation. Grousing on Facebook about my travel woes (a canceled flight on the front end, and unhappiness on the return) unleashed a torrent of unsolicited shared bad experiences with the airline and its customer service. A quick search of the Twitter stream for @UnitedAirlines reveals about one positive comment for 9 or 10 negatives. In tough times, your employees AND your customers are your sales staff to generate future customers. It is essential that they do a good job for you, and understand how vital they are to your success. Relationships and referrals are the only way to build a happy and loyal customer base. It's not hard, and it doesn't take much time. Best of all, it costs nothing to be kind. Small things, like a smile, tone of voice, eye contact, warmth, and attention, are valuable "smoother-overs" in almost any situation. Good news travels in social media with the same speed and enthusiasm as bad news. Just imagine when the online chatter says "I had the most fantastic experience on United, of all places," and "The folks at United went out of their way to help me in a difficult situation." Comments like that could transform your company and its fortunes.

Fortunately, I receive few complaints in my business. But when I do receive one, I do my best to apologize and then make it right. Relationships and referrals are everything to the small business person, and I try to make sure that everyone is treated well. So United, here's the deal: most complainers don't want to be difficult, or to make your life miserable. They want you to get better. They want you to get your act together so that they can do business with you again. They want everyone to be happy. Learn from your customers. They know how you're really doing.

"Be kinder than necessary-everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle." The root of kindness is compassion. Compassion grows from awareness. Customer service makes the difference when times are good. It is golden when times are tough.

Click here for video from my flight on United, Dulles to Houston.

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Nita Cheramie said...

As a VERY frequent flier on many arilines all around the world, I can honestly say you aren't alone. Airline staff have become not just unhelpful but down right rude over the past 10 years. United has to be one of the worst offenders to the point that they are on my no fly list. I would rather rent a car and drive it, no matter how far, than ever step foot on a United airplane again. This is coming from a woman who has put up the likes of Aeroflot and AirAstana on many, many occaisions. I'm sorry for your experience and hope your future flights are better. Did you at least avoid the mandatory layover in Denver?

MaryBeth Smith said...

WOW. United coming up short against Aeroflot and AirAstana is really shocking!

Yes, I managed to avoid a trip through Denver. And, the Chief Tweeter for United Airlines sent me a direct message this morning: "We've read it and agree we need to do a better job."

Good! AND we all know that acknowledging a need, and taking steps to meet that need, are different things. I'll be interested to see what steps they take. Scores of unhappy United customers are tweeting from their gates as we speak. . .

Anonymous said...

I hope United is able to benefit from your extremely well-tempered complaints by implementing your suggestions. Sorry you had such a bad trip!

Jon said...

United Breaks Guitars

Thanks for using my photo.

MaryBeth Smith said...

Your photo was perfect, Jon. I use Zemanta to help me find photos, links and articles for my blogs, and they pulled your photo from Flickr. Much success to you!

Mattison Grey said...

I was just thinking about customer service of all types and how great it is at some places and horrible atothers. I would just like to remind individual service providers of all kinds; from the Barista at Starbucks to the teenager taking my order at McDonald's to the gate agent or flight attendant at any major airline, WE ARE THE CUSTOMERS. Your paycheck comes directly from the money we pay to your company for your product or service. I don't know about you, but biting the hands that feeds you, just doesn't seem smart to me.

MaryBeth Smith said...

UPDATE: I received a "tweet" from @unitedairlines that said: "We read it, and agree we need to do better."
Okay then. Good start.