Five steps to Customer Service Excellence for United Airlines (with real-life case study)

Over on Twitter, I was alerted to a letter published in Business Traveller Magazine where a customer had sent in a legitimate complaint letter to United Airlines, sharing his experience of poor service in Business Class and suggested that more investments be made into customer service training.

It was great that United Airlines actually responded to the letter in the magazine itself. And that’s where the positives ended. Of the five key points raised by the customer, only one was directly addressed. In fact, the response went on to totally digress from the topic and talked more about the airline’s new premium cabins, and not customer service. That got me thinking, it’s probably not just the cabin crew at United who needs lessons in customer service, but even folks from Corp. Comms.

This is very ironic, because just a couple of weeks ago, at the Loyalty 2010 event, while having lunch with Robert Sahadevan, United’s VP of Loyalty, I was very impressed by the focus they have on their frequent fliers and premium passengers. Hence, this response was disappointing, to say the least.

I thought I’d do my bit here for United (and help other airlines too, who need to get their basics right – you know who you are)

Step 1: Listen to the customer

The key word here is LISTEN. Not look. Not hear. But listen. The difference is stark. If you look or just hear, then you hardly absorb any of the content, let alone understand. It’s very important to seek get an idea of why the customer is saying what he’s saying.

Step 2: Identify the key issues mentioned by the customer

Once you’ve listened to him, identify the key issues the customer has expressed – both positive and negative. In this case, there are five key issues, as I’ve highlighted below (click on the image for larger font). They include the Business Class passenger’s request for water not being answered, to the responses he received from the flight attendants.

Step 3: Address the issues

Needless to say, after the issues have been identified, they need to be addressed. Even if you intend to dodge the bullets, do it subtly. Not the way United’s response totally ignores the issues raised and goes off on a tangent. It almost seems to me as if a United Airlines Corporate Sales person has written this reply!

Not only are hardly any issues been addressed, Rahsaan appears almost proud of the fact that he’s doged every bullet in his response. From his LinkedIn profile, Rahsaan seems too experienced to get this wrong. This gives me the feeling that this may have more to do with United’s policy governing Corporate Communications, than a personnel’s overlooking the issues. Which is a scary thought!

Step 4: Apologise, if you’re wrong

Nowhere does the response from United Airlines make any mention of what they’re going to do to change the situation. In fact, they don’t even accept that they’ve done anything wrong. Let alone apologize for it. Frankly, the letter seems as if it’s been written by a computer, not a person. A personal reply needs to be just that – personal.

There’s nothing wrong in apologizing if you’re in the wrong. The least United can do is to learn from the likes of Southwest Airlines and JetBlue – remember the famous video apology by then CEO David Neeleman?

Step 5: Thank the customer for his feedback

Nowhere does the United response thank the customer for taking his time to send the (very valuable) feedback. Not at the beginning. Not at the end. That’s the least they couldn’t have done, isn’t it?

—-

If you’re from United Airlines and reading this, I’d love to hear your take on this situation. Was it a one-off? May be Customer Service should be responding to such letters, not Corporate Communications.

What do you think? What are some of the best practices of airlines that do customer service right? Let’s share our suggestions with United Airlines so that they can make flying better for all of us!

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Shashank Nigam

Shashank Nigam

Shashank Nigam is the CEO of SimpliFlying and a globally sought-after consultant, speaker and thought-leader on airline branding and customer engagement strategy. He is also the youngest winner of the Global Brand Leadership Award and has addressed senior aviation executives globally, from Chile to Canada and from Sydney to San Francisco.Shashank's perspectives have found their way into major media outlets, including CNN Travel, CNBC, MSNBC, Bloomberg UTV, Mashable and in leading publications like Airline Business, ATW, Aviation Week, and others.Shashank studied Information Systems Management and Business Management at Singapore Management University and Carnegie Mellon University. Hailing from India, he splits his time between Singapore and Vancouver, among other cities.
Shashank Nigam
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Showing 23 comments
  • oussama
    Reply

    It seems that the problem resides in the definition of Customer Service within an airline and not necessarily just the implementation. Airline policies are there and as a passenger you either accept it or use another carrier. However, if complaints regarding a policy mount, then it should be explained or reviewed.
    Another aspect is the focus on Premium Passengers and Frequent Flyers Members, everybody else don't count. It just reinforces my belief that Customer Service is not for the bread and butter of the airline, the Y/C passenger.

  • zkiraly
    Reply

    Airline service in the US has become so commoditized that such a poor response to a customer complaint is not a surprise. The low-cost startups, which used to include Southwest, thrive on differentiation, but also on avoiding head-on competition with the big legacy airlines. Because of this, the legacy airlines have not been forced to compete on their routes by differentiating customer service.

    Interestingly enough, while the focus in a commodity market is on curbing costs, the most effective method of breaking out and achieving differentiation in such a market is by offering better value through customer service.

    The international market is of course different from the US domestic one, but an airline's DNA will show through.

    • Shashank Nigam
      Reply

      Good points Zsolt. I think it's high time that customer service is
      used as a differentiator after all, for legacy airlines. And for that,
      they need to get the basics right, as I suggest in this article.

      • zkiraly
        Reply

        I fully agree with you. Do you think they have realized that they have to differentiate to achieve a competitive advantage? I am not so sure.

  • Pasqualina Petruccio
    Reply

    Well thought out , there is only on point that l would like to add: Speed of response is also important. From personal experience and from others l have spoken to on this subject, the longer an airline takes to respond, the more irate and frustrated people become. There is a feeling that you will get fed up with the delay or lack of response and take no further action. However, this just infuriates passengers and they embark on the own personal campaign to bad mouth the airline, and in this day and age of social media very easy and simple to do, damage can be done with far reaching effects more than ever before.

    Regardless of what class you are flying, and your status of frequent flier should not make any difference, the same level of customer service should be given. Which is a double edged sword, as a frequent flier myself, l do and expect to be treated slightly better as l am showing my loyalty to that brand by using them regularly.

    Price whilst important is not the only criteria when booking a flight, l like many other would rather pay slightly more to travel with an airline that l perceive will give me a better customer service.

    All airlines, and especially the LLC’s have to learn and understand that customer service is key to increased passenger numbers and to get the competitive edge.

    Let’s see if United Airlines do listen.

  • Pasqualina Petruccio
    Reply

    Well thought out , there is only on point that l would like to add: Speed of response is also important. From personal experience and from others l have spoken to on this subject, the longer an airline takes to respond, the more irate and frustrated people become. There is a feeling that you will get fed up with the delay or lack of response and take no further action. However, this just infuriates passengers and they embark on the own personal campaign to bad mouth the airline, and in this day and age of social media very easy and simple to do, damage can be done with far reaching effects more than ever before.

    Regardless of what class you are flying, and your status of frequent flier should not make any difference, the same level of customer service should be given. Which is a double edged sword, as a frequent flier myself, l do and expect to be treated slightly better as l am showing my loyalty to that brand by using them regularly.

    Price whilst important is not the only criteria when booking a flight, l like many other would rather pay slightly more to travel with an airline that l perceive will give me a better customer service.

    All airlines, and especially the LLC’s have to learn and understand that customer service is key to increased passenger numbers and to get the competitive edge.

    Let’s see if United Airlines do listen.

  • PasqualinaPetruccio
    Reply

    Well thought out , there is only on point that l would like to add: Speed of response is also important. From personal experience and from others l have spoken to on this subject, the longer an airline takes to respond, the more irate and frustrated people become. There is a feeling that you will get fed up with the delay or lack of response and take no further action. However, this just infuriates passengers and they embark on the own personal campaign to bad mouth the airline, and in this day and age of social media very easy and simple to do, damage can be done with far reaching effects more than ever before.

    Regardless of what class you are flying, and your status of frequent flier should not make any difference, the same level of customer service should be given. Which is a double edged sword, as a frequent flier myself, l do and expect to be treated slightly better as l am showing my loyalty to that brand by using them regularly.

    Price whilst important is not the only criteria when booking a flight, l like many other would rather pay slightly more to travel with an airline that l perceive will give me a better customer service.

    All airlines, and especially the LLC’s have to learn and understand that customer service is key to increased passenger numbers and to get the competitive edge.

    Let’s see if United Airlines do listen.

  • gayroberts
    Reply

    Answers to specific questions are hard to find anywhere. They mention that they are sorry you had a bad experience and the rest of the letter is computer generated. Customer service handled by real people has all but disappeared.

    I have some standard phrases I use but I address the problem and find a way to solve it to the customer's satisfaction.

  • robin k
    Reply

    US airlines seem to respond the same way to compliments as well. That goes a lot to say about the improtance attached to a customer feedback (positive or negative). I had mailed a complimentary mail to US airways 2 months back complimenting the crew who handled the situation very well when we were stuck for 4 hours in a plane due to weather. All I got was an automated mail saying that I will be replied to x business days. Am still waiting for that to happen ! ! !

  • Riyasuddin(Riyaz) Rauther
    Reply

    As Pasqualina said Speed of response is important and also I think legacy airline should be proactive along with active. They should initate communication with the passengers rather than waiting for passengers/customers to respond on their service and then act on it. To focus on the process of taking ideas from passengers/cutomers and implementing. This will make passengers part of innovation to better the service.

    • Shashank Nigam
      Reply

      Riyaz, good points. Though, I'd be skeptical of them being pro-active.
      Because as it is, they're finding it difficult to be active 🙂

  • Riyasuddin(Riyaz) Rauther
    Reply

    As Pasqualina said Speed of response is important and also I think legacy airline should be proactive along with active. They should initate communication with the passengers rather than waiting for passengers/customers to respond on their service and then act on it. To focus on the process of taking ideas from passengers/cutomers and implementing. This will make passengers part of innovation to better the service.

  • Riyasuddin(Riyaz) Rauther
    Reply

    As Pasqualina said Speed of response is important and also I think legacy airline should be proactive along with active. They should initate communication with the passengers rather than waiting for passengers/customers to respond on their service and then act on it. To focus on the process of taking ideas from passengers/cutomers and implementing. This will make passengers part of innovation to better the service.

  • Riyasuddin(Riyaz) Rauther
    Reply

    As Pasqualina said Speed of response is important and also I think legacy airline should be proactive along with active. They should initate communication with the passengers rather than waiting for passengers/customers to respond on their service and then act on it. To focus on the process of taking ideas from passengers/cutomers and implementing. This will make passengers part of innovation to better the service.

  • Riyasuddin(Riyaz) Rauther
    Reply

    As Pasqualina said Speed of response is important and also I think legacy airline should be proactive along with active. They should initate communication with the passengers rather than waiting for passengers/customers to respond on their service and then act on it. To focus on the process of taking ideas from passengers/cutomers and implementing. This will make passengers part of innovation to better the service.

  • ashokneelakanta
    Reply

    This problem exists in not just airlines but across businesses. The typical way of responding is often by dodging the issue. This is a classic case. Also, most companies feel by apologizing they become small, which is a shame.

  • christinabaita
    Reply

    First of all, my mouth just dropped while sitting in a public place no less when I read that United divulged the “extra” amount of money that the employees each received just for doing their jobs!This is indeed one reason why I personally work for a smaller airline versus a mainline (United, Delta, AA..)! The passengers feel like my guests and not just another number. I do not care how busy or “tired” they were. Shame on them for not attending to a business class passenger. An employee perhaps but not a paying business class passenger. I would never even ignore another employee even if it were to only say “excuse me for a moment please, I will be right back”.

    As far as the response from the desk job at United: Did you really expect anything else but a form letter with a brief addition of name followed by a pitch? Other than the person I happen to be, this is another reason why I try and take extra good care of my passengers. If I don't do it, then who?

    BTW, When I went through our form of First Class Training, they gave us the pitch BS also. The stuff that we did learn was common sense and this is just like any other job, lazy employees!

  • Ravindra
    Reply

    Appears as if the financials played better while on the task of understanding issues was on.
    It is for this reason many experienced do not overly depend on simple marketing plans for customer response and feedback and involve operational experts to remain in loop during analysis and before answer.

  • Reply

    Magnificent submit, very informative. I’m wondering why the other experts of this sector don’t notice this. You must proceed your writing. I’m sure, you have a huge readers’ base already!|What’s Taking place i’m new to this, I stumbled upon this I have discovered It absolutely helpful and it has helped me out loads. I’m hoping to give a contribution & aid different users like its helped me. Good job.

  • prettygirl
    Reply

    This article is so spot on. But United airlines will never improve this. They do not care about the customer or their own employees. Listen to customers was number 1 but they do not listen to employees so why would they listen to the customer. Number 2 Identify key issues…they cannot identify key issues with there employees so why would they with customers. Number 3 address the issues, um Im laughing cause they will not address issues with employees either. They walk around it. Ignore it. Blame the small guy and refuse to look at real issues. Number 4 apoligize if they are wrong. HAHAHAHA they are usually always wrong. They will never apoligize to you cause they cannot apoligize to their own front line. Number 5 thank the customer for feedback. At United feedback is not welcomed from ANYONE because management knows more than the world.

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