@United Airlines: How not to do customer service

Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m the first to give credit when customer service works but also believe that when companies fail it needs to be pointed out so that they can improve for the benefit of everyone in the future.

This is especially true when a company is attempting to use technology to better assist customers – or in this example further frustrating customers by not using the technology effectively.

The background
I came to America for the Apple World Wide Developer Conference flying with United Airlines. The plan was to fly Manchester to Washington, Washington to Pheonix, Tuscon to San Francisco, San Francisco to Newark, Newark to Manchester. Lots of flights but I’d made sure that on every leg of the journey there was plenty of time for connections and was genuinely very excited.

What went wrong?
Now we all know that things do sometimes go wrong and sometimes it’s about how companies respond that can make or break the situation.

The first flight was great, we landed in Washington and everything seemed spot on. Unfortunately there was a short delay (2 hours) on the Pheonix flight but that wasn’t going to be a problem as we would still land in time for me to get the last shuttle to Tuscon.

We boarded the plane – unfortunately due to a technical fault we were left sitting on the Tarmac for 3 hours while engineers attempted to fix the issue. It became apparent that the fault could not be fixed so we were asked to get off the plane and head to an alternative gate a 30 minute walk away. We then boarded the new plane and were kept waiting a further hour while bags were transferred before finally taking off – landing in Pheonix around 7 hours late meaning I had to sleep in the airport for 4 hours as I had missed the last shuttle. My 24 hour journey became 35 hours

The flight from Tuscon to San Francisco was without incident.

Returning home was an entirely different story. First I arrived at San Francisco to be told that my baggage was over weight. Now this seemed odd to me as it was the same weight as when I arrived in the US – I hadn’t added anything to the suitcase.

The flight was initially delayed by an hour due to storms in Newark, they boarded us onto the plane and then made us wait on the Tarmac until takeoff. They openly admitted that we were going to travel in a smaller plane than originally planned but the jet they put us onto was not a suitable size for a 6 hour flight in my opinion.

On the way into Newark we were put into a holding pattern for 45 minutes before landing some 90 minutes late. The connecting flight to Manchester had also been delayed (i guess fortunately) by around 2 hours resulting in an extended travel time back to the uk.

Flights get delayed all the time?

This is true, and is not what has promoted this article; throughout my whole experience with United I have found them unreceptive, and unwilling to offer customer assistance and support.

What I expected vs what I got

I thought it worth while to publish some constructive feedback for United that may assist them in making sure that customers like me are happy in the future even if there is a delay.

1. Poor signage – on several occasions during the trip the airline failed to update the signs accurately often stating incorrect destinations on gates, or just not advising passengers what was going on. This just leads to frustration and confusion …. Get the simple things right.

2. Airline staff not present – when there is a delay we like to talk to someone in the know about what’s going on. My experience with united is that checking desks are typically unmanned with little or no information being posted. This leaves passengers frustrated and over time leads to angry customers – I witnessed one example of such frustration being taken out on a member of staff which could easily have been avoided.

3. Delayed in Washington for 6 hours meant that all of the passengers needed food. No one wanted to eat at 1am when we eventually took off so it would have been a nice gesture to offer passengers a meal voucher as compensation – nothing materialised.

4. United did offer a compensation of a reduced internal US flight to passengers on the Washington flight. Clearly no consideration here for international passengers. It would ave been better to ask passengers how they could help. I’d have been delighted if there had a shower available to use.

5. Don’t load passengers onto a plane until it’s ready t take off. Sitting on the tarmac is not a fun experience especially if its several hours before a long haul flight. If you are going to do this at least offer passengers a cup of coffee – it’s only polite!

6. This is where technology hits. United have a Twitter account @united that claims to offer customer service to passengers. I tweeted @united several times during my trip and found that they tended to ignore me. Now I admit I maybe sent a few to many tweets, but the irony is that the more they ignored me the more I tweeted. If you are going to use social media as a means of customer service then you need to engage your passengers; asking what they can do to help and then ignoring the response only infuriates people. I would have settled for an apology, maybe a free cup of coffee?

They asked me what they could do so I tweeted back “give me an upgrade, or a refund” at least answer and say that isn’t possible and offer an alternative – as it stands I have the impression they were only paying me lip service and never actually intended to do anything which begs the question why are they using twitter at all?

7. If a bag is heavy on the way out charge for it then ….. If you carry the bag out of the country you surely have a duty to bring it back?

8. Always make sure there is a meal on a long haul flight. There wasn’t one from San Francisco to Newark – 7 hours including the delay is to long to go without food.

Now I’m not saying that doing all of the above would have made me happy about the delay; but I would have walked away thinking that @united had done all they could to make the situation better and that they cared about me as a customer.

As it stands I’ve left thinking that @United Airlines actually couldn’t give a stuff about me or how their failures have impacted my trip. I’ll certainly avoid flying with @united in the future and I wold strongly encourage others to do the same.

Maybe the true test of United’s customer service is how they respond to this article. Will they take on board the suggestions? Issue an apology? Admit they got it wrong? Do @United actually care?

Have you had any good or bad airline experiences? Maybe you to have flown United – what was your experience? Comment on the blog or tweet @United to let them know!

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Categories: Customer Service, Social, Travel | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

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