This is a true story. The names of people have been changed, but names of brands have not been changed in order to expose the guilty and celebrate the successful. Join me on a journey where I got to experience the best and worst of what it means to be a customer in the digital age.
We get to have a lot of fun at Eclipse helping organizations on their transformation journeys relative to networking, communication, collaboration, and the cloud. Very few things are as exciting to me as working with our clients and partners on the transformation of their customer experience (CX). The term CX gets thrown around a ton these days, so I think it’s worth giving you my definitions. In 2023, great customer experience uses the abundance of tools and technologies available to ensure that every step of a customer’s experience with your brand is leaving a positive impression, making it easy to do business with you, and creating fans out of customers. The technology is only as good as the processes that guide and govern it. The processes need to be cleanly mapped so that customers can self-serve where possible, be met on the digital channel they want to be met on, when they want to be met, day or night, and most importantly get in touch with a fellow human when necessary to ensure that they are getting their concerns addressed and resolved as quickly as possible.
Speaking of humans, the most important part of CX and the customer’s journey is people. How quickly we identify the customer, understand why they are reaching out (even presumptively guessing at the reasons), and resolve their question, concerns, or complaints ends in high or low satisfaction and net promoter scores, repeat buyers who want to give us more business, and can create raving fans or raging detractors.
That’s a pretty wordy definition of customer experience (those who know me will be surprised at the verbosity). Lucky for me, I have an amazing partner who also happens to be a Professor of Communication, so I asked the lovely Dr. Berkland for a more concise explanation of what my ramblings are about and of course, she delivered absolute gold with this: Every communication interaction we have with another person (or in the case of CX a brand) is delivering a message about the value of that relationship. Holy smokes was I floored by that. It bears saying again for those of you in charge of CX- Every interaction with a customer is letting them know how much or little you value them. Now, I will grant there are volumes of research on the topic by academics who will tell you that you can control the messages you deliver but not necessarily the reactions/ feelings of the recipient, and I know that academics love when businesspeople take incredibly well researched topics and information and turn them into pop business psychology and advice, so that’s what I am doing here. (Professor Berkland note-“we do not love this”)
So, allow me to share my own recent customer journey that has a little bit of everything - the good, the bad, and the really ugly. It’s a fun story that shows the best and worst of what organizations are capable of when working with the public and the hero’s journey of someone who was frail and human and made tragic mistakes, the help and obstacles he encountered along the way, and the lessons learned that those of us who obsess about customer journey and experience can take away.
The Plan Gone Awry and “The Ugly”
My story starts with some good old fashioned face-to-face interaction. It was mid-December and I was heading to O’Hare airport for a United Airlines flight to Amsterdam, where I had a couple of meetings set up and then more importantly was going to spend a few days with my daughter who lives in the Netherlands. I bought a ticket for a 19-day long trip and a couple weeks prior to the trip decided to upgrade to Business Class.
Anyone who travels from the US to Europe regularly will tell you that getting good sleep on the plane is the key to quickly beating jet lag and I like to be as with it and present for the time with my family as possible (Mara was due to fly in later that week from the States as well). I tried to check in on the United app and it gave a message saying it couldn’t check me in and that I needed to check in at the airport. I am a seasoned traveler and have had that happen a bunch, no big deal, or so I thought. I got into the United Premier line and walked to the counter to check in.
The woman at the counter said “I’m sorry, I can’t let you on this flight”. I responded as you can imagine by saying there must be some mistake at which point she said “your passport expires in 80 days, so we can’t let you through security”. Now, this where I am on the hook, I am an experienced international traveler, and probably knew in the back of my head somewhere that the passport expiration date is not the real expiration date- it’s 3-6 months prior, but when I opened it and saw March 2023 expiration the only thought I had was, I really need to get this renewed after the holidays. Panic had set in, I was starting to imagine a holiday sitting alone in Chicago while the rest of my family was in Europe together. This was, as you can imagine, upsetting.
I calmly asked the woman from United if there was anything that could be done. To which she said, “yes, you can leave the airport”. I didn’t love that response, so I asked her if she would mind calling a supervisor so I could chat with them about what could be done. She obliged and picked up the phone and made a call. I stepped to the side and waited about three minutes when the supervisor came walking up briskly and when I say he came in hot, I’m not kidding, the first words out of his mouth came out in a shout, “It’s your job to know the rules and our job to enforce them!” While technically true, this would have been a great spot for some kindness and empathy, something like, “I know you must be upset, and this happens a lot. I’m really sorry. What’s your name?” Instead, he lit me up. I get it, working at airport is stressful and people can sometimes take a lot out on airline employees, but you’ll have to believe me when I tell you I remained calm throughout all of this and simply said, “OK, I get it, but is there anyone here at the airport from the government that can, at least, give me ideas on how to quickly fix this? I would love to spend the holidays with my family”. The response, again was clipped and loud, “You need to go down to the Congress Avenue passport office tomorrow [it was Sunday] this is your problem”.
I will admit, knowing that this cause was lost, I said, “For the record, all of my passport info is in your allegedly award-winning app, and you clearly had this flagged, it would have been awesome to have been alerted two months ago when I booked the ticket or even a couple of weeks ago when I paid for an upgrade”. And since I was on a roll, I add, “The powers that be know who I am the second I step out of the car here, when I’m leaving, where I’m going, and when I’m coming back. Are we seriously pretending that ink stamps on paper are for anything other than me having a souvenir?” That got me another round of,” None of this is our problem”. I asked, “Can you please refund my ticket then so I can go home and start working on a solution to my problem?” The cherry on top of the sundae came next, “We don’t do that here. You need to call our call center”. I turned around, embarrassed from being yelled at and numb from the prospect of missing out on family time.
I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that this all happened in the United Premier line, a check-in for what is supposed to be the airline’s best and most valued customers. It makes me wonder if they just go right to the cattle prods for similar situations in economy. Tail between my legs, I jumped into an Uber and headed back to the West Loop of Chicago, where I apologized in advance to my driver, “I need to call United, I’m probably going to be on the phone for most or all of this ride”.
The Waiting Room to My Personal Hell Plays Gershwin on a Loop.
I called Mara, and since I am comfortable with my emotions, I had a good cry. With some words of encouragement from her, I set about solving this problem of my own making.
First stop --the United 800 number. We all have to call the brands we work with for a variety of reasons, and I will be the first to admit I never do so just to say “keep up the good work”. Although depending on who you ask, I definitely am capable of that in the Progressive becoming-your parents sort of way. Now, there was something in the earlier statement from the super delightful United gate agents that should ring an alarm bell for you if you work in CX....“Call Center”. That nomenclature is usually a dead giveaway that an organization hasn’t yet undertaken the important journey of creating a customer first, agent-empowering, omni-channel experience that removes friction from buying, returning, getting important information, solving problems, and other common reasons why people reach out to a brand. The United 800 number did not disappoint!
After asking for some identifying information (flight confirmation), I entered the queue where, I was told, we are extremely busy, no estimated time to get to an agent, just know that we are busy, take a seat and enjoy a beverage; will get to you when we get to you. This is when the most awesome part of being a United caller kicks in, the first seven bars to George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue start to play, on a loop, repeatedly, with an interruption after 3 or four loops to say “thanks for your patience, we value you as a customer” followed by more of the Gershwin intro, no remixes, no different songs, no other announcements. As the minutes tick by and you realize that you are trapped, lots of thoughts come to your mind “No you don’t f#@$king value me as a customer! No one would do this to anyone they value!” and “I wonder how much effort it would take to build a time machine and go back and kill Gershwin before he writes this song?” which invariably leads you down the rabbit hole of “What song would they replace it with? It could be much worse”.
Thirty-nine minutes of Gershwin later, a very nice agent from the United center picked up. The joy you feel after the end of the Rhapsody repetition is akin to what someone in the desert feels like when they finally stumble across some water. After some unnecessary steps to let her know who I was (despite putting identifiers in earlier), I explained my situation and the person helping did a great job in one of the most important things a contact center team member can do, expressing sympathy and showing empathy. “I’m really sorry Mr. Dyson, that must feel awful. I hope you can figure out how to get over there and be with your family”. I felt much better about United than I did at the airport, despite the piece of bad news that she could credit my original airfare, but that the $1,600 upgrade was non-refundable. United was keeping that. But I could write to an email address and make a case for a credit (no refunds, credits only). I did write to the United escalations email, which was so atrocious it was comical, more on that in a bit.
My main objective was to figure out how the heck to get a new passport as quickly as possible to get myself to my family.
Every good writer knows you end on a cliffhanger so, for this week, I bid you adieu. Next week I will finish my tale so don't forget to check back to see if I was able to figure a way out of customer experience hell.