You’re call is extremely important to us…

I’m known to my close friends as a Customer Service Unicorn. For years, I’ve helped family and friends avoid hours on hold and frustration around not knowing how to communicate with Customer Service Representatives from large and small companies. I’ve helped friends get refunds from airlines, get out of auto-renewing memberships and find out why on earth they were charged double on a cell phone bill.

Back in high school, I made money not as a grocery store bag boy, or a law mower, but through setting up computers and routers for my neighbors. I’d also help troubleshoot bad printer driver, viruses, and similar baffling technical support issues. BestBuy was the nearest physical support technician and with my low, low overhead, I could undercut them by 80%. Through the four years I spent working most days after-school for a few hours, I slowly began to memorize the support phone number of Comcast, AT&T and Apple. I was able to speed through their phone trees and talk to someone as quickly as possible. I was also extremely patient and kind with the representatives (or in Comcast’s case, Customer Account Executives). That kindness went a surprisingly long way.

After reflecting on the hellish support experiences I’ve been going through in the past week, I’ve learned my patience has dropped significantly. My first thought was something along the lines that I was “tapped out of practice.” For instance, not knowing how to traverse the increasingly difficult interactive voice response systems, more commonly known to you as phone trees, or the harshly pleasant “main menu.” I used to think repeatedly pressing zero or saying ‘representative’ could summon a real human… not any more. Now zeros are often met with the phrase “Invalid Option” or “I understand you’d like to talk to someone, but first…” The shortcut word: “representative” that many have come to rely on as an escape hatch, now regularly lands you back to the start.

Psychoanalysis

Recently, while trying to reach a Fortune 500 company, their phone system greeted me and said to explain “in just a few words” what I was calling about today. I said: “Representative.” It responded, “I understand you want to talk to someone — but I’ll need to know what you’re calling about so I can get you to the right person.” I felt my blood in my ears boil.

I became concerned with how angry and frustrated I was getting. I’m not usually like this. I’m calm under hold times. I’m friendly with support agents.

“Maybe I’m just out of practice”

I started running through the reasons spawning the customer service directed rage. Maybe I was just out of practice.

This alibi was quickly ruled out: I started counting the times that I’ve reached out to the customer service departments in the past month. The count was in the double digits.

“Maybe I’m running out of patience”

The next thought turned to resolution time. Maybe I’m furstrated because I’m the one being inconvenienced for a length of time. Back in the days of working as an IT consultant, I wasn’t usually stuck between a rock and hard place when Comcast had to ‘roll-a-truck’ to restore service. Sure, it sucked for my clients but I wasn’t the one without internet access for three days. I was going to go back to working wifi.

Now that I’m the one drawing the short staw with the intermittent internet connection, the buggy software, and the bad support experiences with companies I’ve paid hundreds of dollars each month I’m not being calm.

This doesn’t add up though. Looking back through email chains, and quick searches for 1–800 numbers in my phone history prove otherwise. Resolutions haven’t taken longer or have been shittier than usual.

“I’ts the fucking marketing department’s fault”

In an epiphany, I’ve come to see the marketing departments as the culprit. Those whose billboards dot my city, commercials I sit through, and ads I see around the internet. They are the fairweather friends. The sirens who promise the world when all they have is a few crumbs and poorly QA-ed software.

Do you call the marketing department when your TV stops working?
Nope.

Do you reach out to the creative director when your support department is getting hounded with trouble tickets. 
I wouldn’t think so.

Do you ask for a refund from your agency when there is massive amounts of bad press from misleading marketing campaigns? 
Probably not.

If your ads show that you are providing a service or product and the thing you sell does not do what it is supposed to do… then you’re in hot water.

Resolution Time

I have less patience when prolonged problems are not fixed. Remember the iPhone 6 Plus, for which Tim Cook and many apple C-levels stood on stage and bragged about, the one that sold millions of units in 30 days? It can’t use iOS longstanding multitasking feature without crashing. Several times a a day. Built in search can’t consistently find system apps, like Music, or Safari that are installed. On top of that the wifi connections to my Apple AirPort base station is flaky at best.

To add insult to injury: one week into ownership, it automatically updated and bricked itself.

No cellular service, no fingerprint-security reader, and it became physically hot. I missed my lunch that day trying to get it swapped with a functional unit. It took an Apple employee 45 minutes to let me know that I’d need a new phone, and another 30 minutes until I had it activated.

Luis C.K., a favorite comedian of mine, has often said how the coolest technology is lost on the worst generation. Sometimes, I do agree with him, and try to be patient when my expensive GoGo InFlight wireless internet doesn’t work. However, I believe, deep down, that I would be calmer and more accpeting of buggy phones and software if they didn’t sell this magical world where everything “talks” and works perfectly.

If I wasn’t mocked every day by looming iPhone billboards would I be so bitter.

Redemption in an Unlikely Form

Walking into a cafe or breakroom it’s immediately obvious, from the tone, that someone is complaining about either an airline or cable provider.

From their weird, unreadable legal policies and occasional government oversight to inconsistent support resolution and massive variance in frontline employee training, it just feels odd to pay thousands of dollars a year to be treated so poorly.

This “horror story” is, as expected, airline related.

We open on a lovely return flight on Delta Airlines from Chicago to San Francsicso via Detroit.

We took a while to get out of Chicago, about 40 minutes behind schedule. This represented a good portion of our connection time, but we were promised to make up the time in the air. Like most, Detroit wasn’t our final destination. We all nervously watched the GoGo flight tracker on our increasingly tight connections. I used my phone to plan our run inside Detroit’s beautiful airport. We were in Concourse A, Gate 21. Our departing flight was also in the very long Concourse A, but at Gate 76. Fuck.

We taxied quickly, and with the door open, I scrambled up the jetway. I had given everything but a jacket to my boyfriend to hold.

I found the gate agent at her desk. I was probably passenger #3 off the jetway, and she was helping another passenger for the flight my aircraft was about to embark on. I waited 30 seconds on the side of her desk. When there was a break in the conversation, I quickly blurted:

“I have only ten minutes to make it to gate A76, and could you call ahead and say I was making a run for it. Also, which way I should go, run or train.”

Without looking up she muttered: “They won’t hold the plane. Take the train.”

I politely replied: “Okay… but could you at least call ahead? About a dozen of us are trying to make it to SFO, and we’re running there right now.”

She replied, looking at me with a face of open hostility: “They can’t hold the plane.”

The two passengers she was “helping” told me where the airport’s ExpressTrain was, and collectively and supportively yelled: “run, run, run.”

So I backtracked to gate A11 and ran up the escalators, my boyfriend right behind me. Thank goodness, a train was just arriving. We stepped onto the train with some Delta pilots. They proactively asked my boyfriend and I where we were coming from and headed to. “O’Hare to SFO.” We replied. They said we should be okay, as it’s a fast train that only makes one stop and that once we got to the other end of the terminal, we should run, straight then to the left and we’ll see A76.

We thanked them profusely and I once again made the run. The train doors opened I bounded down two escalators and sprinted down the terminal. I dodged passengers and made the turn to A76. I started shouting and waving my hands. “A76 to SFO?” I shouted. The agents there looked up and yelled back: “Chicago?” “YES!”

They waved me on! “Come on! Come on!”

Behind us were ten or so others, a couple of which had decided to forgo the train entirely and instead run across all of the moving sidewalks to cross the 50 gates by foot.

We beeped onboard, and settled into our seats, exhausted, hot, but ultimately happy. Unfortunately, our adventure didn’t end there, as due to fog in SFO, we’d have to wait about 45 minutes, which turned into hours.

When they announced the first delay, I was just happy we had made it, and that we’d be leaving shortly. When they quickly made a second delay announcement, the longer 2 hour one, hunger (from not eating for 12 hours) and thirst and exhaustion set in.

For the first time in my life, I rang the call button.

The awesome flight attendant said that since we’d have a longer delay, we should be able to get out of the plane and grab a snack from the airport. However, since we were at the gate, with the cabin door closed, she couldn’t serve us food or drinks.

I walked to the front of the plane, where a lined was formed to get back to the airport. Our pilot said that if we got off the plane, we’d have to stay in Detroit for the night. His reasoning wasn’t exactly laid out.

He added that we’d have to be accommodated on a flight on Wednesday due to stacked cancellations. Granted, this being Sunday, that wasn’t particularly good news. He said he’d keep us posted on the weather in SFO… but having been delayed this long I was thinking this flight might get cancelled.

Then there was silence. For over two hours.

Since the Department of Transportation enaced EAPP (basically the Passenger Bill of Rights) airlines have to do a few simple things to ensure their passengers are comfortable. It’s odd to say that they have to… considering that it is in their best interest to do so, right? Wouldn’t you want passengers to say: “Oh that flight was refreshing. I got to relax, and watch television and eat a meal, and sit on my butt for three hours while we rocketed through the stratosphere.” Apparently not.

The DOT has been enforcing these rules intensely for the past few years. They fine airlines tens of thousands of dollars for each passenger who is on a grounded aircraft more the 3 hours, unless there are national security implications for the delay. Frontier was recently charged $800,000 for doing this. JetBlue became famous for stranding passengers onboard an aircraft for nearly 11 hours.

Another part of that extended tarmac delay rule: they also have to provide water and lavatories, are encouraged to provide other beverages, entertainment and food for free, and are also required to give updates every 30 minutes.

Luckily for Delta, we left the gate 2 hours and 55 minutes later. Unfortunately, they provided just two updates during that 3 hour ordeal and didn’t allow access back to the terminal despite being attached to the jetbridge the entire time. Both facts frustrate me and violate the DOT’s regulations. If that happens on your flight, feel free to file a complaint with the dot.gov’s website and someone from the DOT will reach out to you.

However, as I’ll explain later, Delta’s corporate support ended up making up for the flight crew’s less than stellar attitude.

Delta has a 24 hour turnaround time for email complaints. The email was personalized to my situation, not a canned repsonse, and nearly made up for the entire situation. It helped me feel heard, understood and made whole, and probably didn’t cost Delta a lot of money what-so-ever. Plus, when enough passengers complain about a single cog in the massive airline machine, there might be a good reason to review it.

The email was broken into three parts:

  1. What we heard: Basically re-writing my response in a concise manner to ensure they understood the crux of the sitaution.
  2. What we are going to do about it: This is their long term strategy for the problem. Reviewing times with airport staff, escalating the issue. They don’t provide a timeline, but it was personalized to my complaint.
  3. A sign of goodwill: This is when they outlined the small token gift of frequent flyer miles for the inconvience. Sure, it’s a small, nearly worthless amount.

This email is not only a great human moment, it helps track customers who are getting stuck in bad experiences. Airlines are starting to roll out loyalty scores, which helps guide agent’s token gifts. Based on spending, and how much the airline has screwed up with delays and lost baggage over the past few years is tallied into a quantified rating. American Airlines has a “Helix” score they use for this purpose.

And Finally…

While I agree this has been a long ramble, there is a couple morals to the customer service stories:

  1. Marketing departments: curb your enthusiasm on new products when there are so many bugs that demo units don’t function properly. Wait 30 days before you roll out the massive “it’s amazing” ads. Also, coordinate with operations, so you don’t advertise so heavily when it’s a four week wait to get something or to get support.
  2. Don’t make it impossible to get to a real human. I’m fine with voice prompts, and questions, but make it fast, and easily escapable for customers having edge case issues. I’m always impressed with Simple, my bank, who, based off my phone number already has my information available to the agent, never prompts me for anything, and only requires me to verify (not spell out) my information. Make it easy for everyone. Apple and Delta have a way to let their phone system address us by name, and ask us if we’re calling about “recent purchase of _” or “upcoming flight to _” Imagine all the time you’ll save everyone with a decently programmed phone tree.
  3. Urgency requires attention and sympathy. Gate agent: Did the flight arriving at your gate arrive later than expected? Okay think-ahead, get your game face on, call in backup and get ready to answer questions as politely as possible. It might be something you deal with everyday, but most of America travels very infrequently.
  4. Go above and beyond the minimum. Flight delayed by a couple hours? No problem. Offer free premium television, headphones and pillows. Drinks are on us, and if we can’t get you out of the gate in an hour or so, we’ll give you the option to step out and be more comfortable. There’s always a PA system ready to announce when the flight’s ready to go. Plus, any little airport restaurant will be thrilled to feed us better food that what we would’ve gotten onboard. We’ll thank you for it, and the little cost of giving us a few pay-for items is a token gesture that will make passengers love you and won’t even be a rounding error in a given month’s books. Also, if you have any inkling that there’s any chance of a delay? Update your consumer facing information. That way the app will get the update en route and wont run across the terminal to sit for hours on end.
  5. When you can’t help, provide options. Sometimes, it is entirely out of your control. I get that. It’s a complex game for departments at large companies to work together, but look to owning a bit of the responsability. If you know about the problem explain what you personally are going to / have done about it, and loop back in a few days to let us know about your progress. Also, give me at least someone I can contact to escalate if I want to. Apple has a corporate-level Customer Relations when things go completely sideways, and you should have something in place at the executive level too.
  6. Make it up. While you might not notice losing one or two customers here and there, the old “I’m never flying United again!”, doesn’t mean that you have to be mean or unreasonable. Even if it’s a small voucher, or token that you understand what I am (as your customer) feeling, it means a lot. United use to offer SkyKits with small amounts of credit. When Delta provides 5,000 SkyMiles (which is a very small amount) that customer feels like they were both heard, and appreciated. Only rarely (e.g. a monopoly) does it not make financial sense to be reasonable. Don’t be a Comcast.

One final thought to leave you with: United is known worldwide as the worst US based, “legacy” carrier. It enjoys its low-on-the-totem pole position with US Airways, which before the merger with AA was reclassified from a “legacy” carrier to being a “low-cost carrier” by industry experts.

Consider the opposite of United: Delta. They were one of the first legacy carriers to put in GoGo internet, to set up a support Twitter that was staffed 24/7, to set up simple automated ways to help people (like their Scan and Go stations which immediately print your newly assigned boarding pass if you missed your connection), and personal ways to connect with real people. They invested heavily in upgrading and retrofitting their fleet with AC power ports, USB ports, capacitive touchscreen seat-back entertainment systems, faster internet and a highly regarded longhaul first class product. Even on regional, often outsourced legs, they always offer free soda (with a keep-the-can mentality) and a choice of 3 snacks.

When I joked about their low value frequent flyer program, their loyalty currency is so low value due to the massive number of loyal flyers they have. They have more people who consistently fly 125,000 miles a year (their top tier status, which is 25% harder to reach than all competitors) and have more elites and loyal fliers than any other airline. They’ve had profitable quarter after quarter, and recovered from the recession way earlier than United who (in the recently booming time of air travel) just finally made it into the black in Q3 of 2014.

If you’re kind, responsive and empower every employee to help… you’ll end up with fewer “air-rage” events, unhappy customers and rants online like this one.