If you missed out on part 1, you can catch up here.
I did a bunch of research and came up with two plans:
Plan A - Contact U.S. Customs and Immigration to get an emergency appointment knowing that they may not consider my stupidity an emergency on par with a stolen passport or fleeing political persecution.
Plan B - Enter the world of Passport and visa expediters. These are the sort of companies who you only work with in a circumstance where you need them and to the uninitiated can feel a little suspicious and leave you asking questions like, “Can you really get me a visa or a passport in mere days? Are you sure it’s a real passport?”
Plan A- “The Bad” or did you seriously think U.S. government bureaucracy was going to be your simple answer?
I woke up on Monday morning at 6am, I went for a run, meditated and uttered mantras to bring good luck and fortune to me to help meet the challenges of the day. The U.S. Customs and Immigration 800 number said online that they start taking calls at 9am EST and so I readied myself like I was dialing for concert tickets back in the olden times when we listened to radio. I cracked my knuckles and dialed their number and was greeted immediately with a statement I recollect as saying “we are experiencing long hold times, be prepared to wait you fool!”
Fortunately, I was ready for this, I had meditated, I was rested, hydrated, my Bluetooth earbuds and phone were charged to the max. As long as George Gershwin wasn’t involved, I was resolved to spend my entire day on hold if necessary. Imagine my surprise when a mere three minutes later an agent picked up my call! He was cheery and beyond helpful,
I explained my situation and the fact that I literally could walk to the Chicago passport office within 10 minutes. I couldn't believe my luck when he informed me that they have daily appointment for this type of situation. I soared with excitement, this was my dude, he was going to help me make this happen!
Unfortunately, this was quickly followed with “I’m sorry sir, all of the appointments for the next three days in Chicago are booked”. I said, “What about Thursday or Friday?” He said those were all booked as well. I inquired about the following week? He said, “I can only see three days at a time, so you have to give me three-day windows and I can look at all of the offices nationwide, for instance there IS an appointment available this afternoon in Buffalo”.
I imagined how fun this option would be. I could spend an afternoon on my private jet and grab some wings, in my hometown with my brother nonetheless, but then I realized that I didn’t have a private jet and that people with private jets don’t deal with this kind of shit. We both had a good laugh at the idea of it and I thanked the man who did try really hard to help me. I took a deep breath and readied myself to dive into a completely unknown world (at least to me) of passport expeditors.
Plan B- What turned out to be “the Good”. No, I take that, back- “The Great.”
To the Googlematron we go! After searching for a term resembling “how an idiot can quickly get a passport, and no I’m not running from the law”. A list of passport expeditor firms popped up.
I called the first one on the list. It was an 800# and went to a voicemail that said something along the lines of “This is Bill, if you need help getting a visa, leave a message and I’ll call you back.” This did not give me the initial boost of confidence in the speedy passport industry that I was hoping for. Images of handing over a brown paper bag full of cash to Bill in an alley danced in my head. A joyous holiday with my family starting to fade away like Michael J. Fox in Back to the Future. I did not leave a message for Bill.
I regrouped and started looking at Google Reviews and Trustpilot for passport expeditors and the name Travel Visa Pro kept showing up on the top of the list for both. I know we are in an era of review stuffing so these things need to be taken with a dash of skepticism salt, but there were hundreds of positive reviews and they all referenced how amazing and helpful everyone was.
I picked up the phone and called. The call was answered almost immediately by a friendly member of the team. She asked what I was calling about. I explained my situation and she immediately laid out the expectations of what they could do, how long it would take, and what it would cost. I agreed to all of the above and set out on my way.
She did a customer intake: name, date of birth, email address, mailing address, phone number and then said that within 10 minutes all of the paperwork I needed to fill out would be in my inbox. It was there ahead of schedule and the next three hours were spent working on this problem (it would have taken less time, but Murphy’s Law reared its ugly head, my printer broke that morning and there were a lot of trips back and forth to my neighborhood Fedex Office store. I could go on another tangent here about the terrible customer experience I was subjected to when I called Brother about my laser printer-but that tangent will have to wait for another day).
I went a few blocks to Walgreens (after first going to three other places that advertised they offer passport photos, with varying reasons for why they couldn’t take one the day I needed them to: broken camera, guy who takes pictures isn’t here, we are too short staffed to leave the register to help you) and got my passport photos taken.
I printed my forms at FedEx and got everything filled out, scanned, and sent to the Travel Visa Pro team. This is where the magic really happens. The way Travel Visa Pro engaged with me using a full suite of digital channels was exactly what customer experience done right in this era looks like. I received a call about 30 minutes after my submittal. “Mr. Dyson, two of your forms are incorrectly filled out, we are sending them back with the areas that need to be changed and initialed. Fill out new copies and send them back. In addition, we’ve reviewed your passport photos and we believe they will be rejected as they show too much of your giant head (emphasis mine) and not enough of your shoulders as required. Here is an example to show the photographer of what the ideal photo looks like when you go to get them retaken”.
I went back to the FedEx store and printed up some new forms and fill them out as required, and I called back Travel Visa Pro. This is where the experience got really awesome. Someone in a completely different office picked up. She knew exactly who I was and says “are you calling about your paperwork and passport photos?” I confirmed that I was, and that I wanted to confirm that I had the paperwork right this time. She asked me to text her images of the forms, and while we were on the phone, I snapped photos, texted them, she reviewed them, sent them to another person for review, all the while speaking to me.
When she received confirmation from her colleague that my forms were correct, I offered to scan the paperwork in, but she told me that they were good with the images I had texted. I then headed back to Walgreens. When I got there, the three employees who had been super helpful the first time, remained super helpful as I explained to them that why we needed a reshoot. They happily obliged and this time before they printed, I decided to verify with the Visa Pro folks again.
This time I sent a picture of the monitor at Walgreens to the same Visa Pro number as before. Immediately, my phone rang and it is yet another associate of Travel Visa Pro. “Mr. Dyson, that picture is not going to work, you need to put your chin down”. I start to argue, “but the Walgreens computer says it meets the parameters”. She rightly chastised me, “I’m telling you go retake the picture, put your chin down and retake the picture. I will wait on hold until you text me the next shot.”
Duly chastised, I say, “I’m sorry, you’re right, you are the expert and this is why I am working with you.” I went in for round three of my Walgreens photo and they awesome women there was being a great sport, and we decide the real problem was I wasn’t Smizing hard enough (that’s Smiling with your Eyes for the non America’s Next Top Model initiated).
She takes a ton of pics and we find one that the Walgreens computer green lights and I send in via text again. The Visa Pro agent immediately responded and told me that it was great, to print it, and look in my inbox for the FedEx label to send it overnight to their San Francisco office. I put my validated pics and paperwork into the FedEx envelope and sent it on its way along with my hopes of a family holiday and a passport that gets turned around in mere days.
I got a notification via text and email the next morning that my package has been received and is now in process. Over the next two days I received updates of where everything is in the process. I never needed to reach out, I am constantly being given information so that I never have to call or email for updates. Team Eclipse will tell you that one of the Dave-isms they like the most is that in the absence of updates and information, the client will jump to the worst case scenario, perhaps even inventing new catastrophes.
Three days later, I got a call from the TVP 800 number. “Mr. Dyson, we will be sending you email confirmation as well but wanted to call and let you know we have your passport in hand and will be sending it to you overnight, the Fedex number will be in your email shortly. Would you like your new passport number now so that you can proceed with booking travel?” I was overjoyed. I lost a few days, but I was still going to have the chance to be with my family in spite of my mistake. Shiny new passport in hand, I boarded a plane two days later and had an awesome couple of weeks with the people I love most in the world.
What did this journey teach me about the "The Good, The Bad, and The Very Ugly of Customer Experience"?
1. Your education is always ongoing and always comes at a cost, be it humility, finances, or frustration.
I had all three on this one. I am fortunate to be in a position to bail myself out of a jam of my own making, I recognize and greatly appreciate that fact.
2. The US Passport has changed in the last few months. It looks and feels different compared to the old ones.
There is a plastic insert in the middle of it and a letter in my passport number for the first time. Not going to lie, as I was looking at this waiting for my new flight, the thought of, “shit, I just paid a lot of money for a fake passport, I hope it’s a good fake”, definitely consumed me.
Note: This was a totally legitimate passport and I have used it on three continents already. Travel Vis Pro are magicians, I don’t care how they made the sausage, they rock!
3. In the modern technology era, world-beating customer experiences can be delivered no matter what your size or business.
I will go out on a limb and say that Travel Visa Pro has fewer capital resources than United Airlines or the U.S. government, yet somehow was able to deliver an experience as good as any I can recollect.
I will say it again, they knew who I was every time I contacted them after the first time, why I was likely calling, and utilized multiple digital channels to help me. I didn’t even care about some of the soft skills like kindness and empathy (though those were in abundance) because I FELT the competency and expertise in every step of the journey. If you are in charge of customer experience and not looking for new ways to improve that experience, big and small on a perpetual basis, you are going to eventually lose to your competitors who are making those investments.
4. As those of us who fly a lot will attest, airlines mostly get things right.
You buy a ticket, you get on the plane, they get you where you want to go and back. The reason it’s so easy to hate airlines is that when they get it wrong, they get it all the way wrong and then double down on it by treating you poorly. “We lost your bag that you paid $75 to check? That sounds like a you problem.”
“We had to cancel 3,000 flights because someone misplaced today’s punch cards for the computer, tough shit, you’re missing granny’s 80th birthday”. This is both a technology and a people issue, and again I understand that people lose their minds at the airport daily so airline employees are wired to be on the alert for the next verbal or even physical assault. That being said, training on empathy, active listening, and de-escalation techniques would go a long way to making travel a better experience for all parties involved.
5. Technology in all of this only exists to make the human interactions more valuable and meaningful.
Agents who feel like they are actually helping people will be more excited and engaged at work. Customers who feel valued as people will be loyal fans of the business. Yes automation and AI are here to take away simple, self-servable tasks, but that is only to free up your awesome people to go connect with and help human beings.
Tying up loose ends
The first question people ask me when I tell them my tale of woe is "Will, you still fly United?"
My answer may surprise you. Absolutely. I live in Chicago, and they are often the best schedule and cost option from their HQ city. Will I always check all of my other options first now? Absolutely. I generally had a good opinion of United, but when I wrote an email about my experience and received this generic reply in response it made me question that opinion.
Hi David, I'm concerned to hear about your experience with our airport agents. We expect every team member to deliver great service and regret to hear that we've fallen short on providing you with the customer service you expect and deserve. I will share your experience with their supervisors so they can follow up internally and review the behavior with the employee.
Thank you for taking the time to provide this honest feedback. We will use it to improve our services, and we hope to regain your trust on your next journey.
Regards, Becky Customer Care
I filled out another web form to attempt to get a refund. It was never acknowledged. I tried to call, but George Gershwin beat me that day and I threw in the towel. United is going to keep my upgrade fee, I am going to relay this terrible experience to many people and that will be that.
The moral of the story is that it doesn’t have to be this way. This is fixable. Yes, it will take time, it will be hard, it will cost money and requires patience and will but in the end it will be worth it when your front line employees are more engaged, the technology is making every agent your best agent, and your customers are delighted because you know them, you know why they are calling/ texting/ chatting and they believe you care about them as a person and not as a contribution to the bottom line.
United, you made over $700 million in profit last year, this is not a question of whether or not you can afford to make these changes, but rather do you have the will to prioritize your customers and make every interaction with your airline a good one? This is not about spending money on tech, it’s about investing in your people and your customers. This is the opportunity to improve loyalty, customer satisfaction, and yes ultimately make people want to do business with you, even at a premium because they feel the love at every turn.
This journey is never-ending, but it needs to start. Call me and the team at Eclipse, we can help you get to the top of this mountain, we have done it before repeatedly and we know the results. Ignoring this topic will jeopardize the future of your business. Customers will be won and lost for life on good or bad experience, it’s not too late to start, but it is way past the time to do nothing.