A business process mess at United Airlines

January 19, 2008

A business process mess at United Airlines

The other day I had to fly from Boston to Denver when it became clear that there was going to be a sizable snow storm in Boston. Once it became obvious that if I tried to fly out on Monday I would probably not make my Monday night dinner meeting and my Tuesday consulting I decided to take action. I called United Airlines and changed my flight to Sunday. Now, I hate traveling on Sunday but missing the meeting was not an option.

I was connected to a very, very friendly agent in India. She was extremely polite and informed me that, yes, I could change my flight but I would be charged a $100 change fee plus another $250.00 for the new flight. I was also informed that according to her system there were no weather problems that should cause me to have to change my flight arrangements. I suggested that she might want to look at a website called weather.com .

I was actually surprised that she looked at the site and did acknowledge that there was a storm coming into Boston. Despite this revelation, she would not budge. I asked to speak to a supervisor. To make a long and painful story short — I got the supervisor (also in India) to wave the $100 change fee, but not the $250 charge. I had no choice, I paid for the additional ticket charge.

On Sunday afternoon I arrived at the airport and discovered that I was not the only person who thought the weather might cause travel problems. The United Airline agent at the airport told me that I should not have been charged the $250 fee at all. She gave me a phone number to call and I would be able to get my money back. She was professional, informed and actually quite pleasant to deal with. While sitting and waiting for my Sunday flight to take off, I noticed that my Monday morning flight was indeed canceled.

On Monday, I called the number to get the $250 charge reversed and I found myself caught up in the same process that I experienced when I tried to change my flight. I spent more than an hour talking to very polite agents in India who seemed not to want to reverse the fee. I was finally given a promise that the fee would indeed be reversed and that I would receive an email confirmation. It is Saturday and I am still waiting.

So, what’s my point about process? Companies know that they have to provide customer service. However, it is not a profit center. So, companies like United Airlines create the following process for customer service. If you are a gold/platinum customer you can call a special number and talk to a local representative who treats you like you are a real person. My friend Henry was traveling the same day on United and because he travels on United frequently his experience was the opposite of mine. In essence, United established a class system that treats customers who traditionally spend more money differently from customers like me who tend to travel on other airlines.

On one level it makes sense. Set up a system that rewards loyal customers. The business process designed to support these customers is good. However, the process to handle all the other passengers is broken. Training smart people to be polite, follow a script, and never deviate from a defined process is flawed. What is missing is context. To be good at managing business process requires that there be context for what is happening such as problems with weather and unexpected emergencies. We live in a complex world that requires that customer management be treated as an opportunity for future business development — not as an over simplified process.

In the future, I will probably try to avoid United Airlines if I can (unless there is no direct flight to where I am headed). Had the company had a different business process and treated me as a potentially valuable customer I might have looked more favorably at United for future trips. The bottom line is that streamlining business process too much can be a dangerous thing.

About Judith Hurwitz

Judith Hurwitz is an author, speaker and business technology consultant with decades of experience.

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