Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Creating Great Service Experiences: United (not even close) versus BA (great, eventually)

One of the great things about researching services is that every interaction I have with an organisation offers a new opportunity to observe what services they deliver and how well they deliver them. The last 24 hours has been one long lesson in service excellence (or the lack of it). Yesterday I had to fly from Denver to Chicago and then on to London. The Denver to Chicago leg was with United. The Chicago to London leg with BA. Just to give a sneak preview of where this is going - although I left for Denver airport around 30 hours ago, I am still in Chicago! Let me explain why and then ask what we can learn from this experience.

I arrived at Denver Airport at around 12:30pm on Monday, managed to clear security and get to my gate area by around 12:45pm. After a quick lunch, I made my way to the gate and was invited to board the United flight shortly after 14:00. Once everyone had got on the plane and sat down a member of cabin crew announced "the pilots for this plane have been held up. They are not going to be here for another hour so we are going to deplane you all. If you have connecting flights we suggest you go to the United help desk". Having just boarded 300 people, United then deplaned 300 people. You can imagine the queue at United customer services - strange that they only had two people on the desk. At one stage one of the reps left the desk and walked passed me. I said, "excuse me" and he just said, "I have to go to the bathroom and ran away". When he came back he walked right past me, so I said once again "excuse me". This time he had no choice but to stop and I asked why there were only two people on the service desk. He replied, "I don't control staffing". I said, "So is there a manager we can talk to". He said, "I don't know where she's at" and walked away.

I never made the front of the queue to talk to customer services as we were called away to board the plane again at around 15:30. By 15:40 I was back in my seat and at 15:45 the cabin crew announced the pilots had arrived and were getting the plane ready. At 16:00 the captain came on the tannoy - he was the first (and only) person from United to apologise for the earlier mess up and the delay. Then he said, "I've got bad news, they've closed Chicago, so we are going to be sitting here for 50 minutes. I am going to keep you on the plane until I get another update from Chicago and then we'll decide whether to deplane you for a second time".

Thirty minutes later and we've got a new route to Chicago, so the plane starts moving. While we've been waiting I've been trying to get the gate agent to get a message to British Airways saying I'm going to be pushed to catch the flight, but the gate agent is not interested in helping me - after all British Airways are in a different alliance to United! To make up for the delay the pilot enabled "free TV" on the plane, but every time an announcement was made the announcement drowned out the movies and the film didn't pause. That coupled with the incessant advertising breaks didn't make free TV a great experience either.

We finally arrive at Chicago at 20:03 (amazingly the time that one member of cabin crew hinted we were going to arrive about four hours earlier, when we kept getting told that we would be there by 19:00 and then 19:30, etc) - promise after broken promise. As soon as we arrive I turned on my phone to be greeted by a series of texts from United telling me the plane was going to be late. I knew that - I was on the plane. What a great system United flight updates is - what's the point of sending flight updates by text to passengers who are flying on planes and therefore have to have their phones turned off?

On arrival at Chicago I got off the plane, made my way to terminal 5 as fast as I could to find no British Airways staff available (they'd gone home) and although I cleared security, they BA staff had also left the lounge and shut up shop for the night. So I was stranded at Chicago. No way of re-booking a flight - the BA call centre was closed (I checked). No interest from United - they'd got to Chicago and now I wasn't their problem anymore.

Given the general chaos finding a hotel with a spare room was not straightforward, but I finally found one, made my way there and went to sleep at around 1:00am. At 4:00am I work up and called British Airways in the UK - their first response was "sorry, you've missed your flight, but we can't do anything. You didn't show up so we off loaded you. You'll have to buy a new ticket". I pointed out that flew with BA a lot, had a gold card for their frequent flier programme and could easily take my business elsewhere. At which point the guy I was speaking to went off to talk to his boss and came back a couple of minutes later saying "on this occasion and in recognition of your loyalty to British Airways, we'll get you on another flight. There's no space today (Tuesday), but we can get you out on Wednesday.

So now I'm in my hotel, I've checked in for tomorrow's flight and I'm wondering what BA and United come have done differently. Let's start with United - it’s not just the raft of broken promises. They were compounded by the operational chaos - not having pilots, not realising that when pilots came in on a delayed flight they might be "illegal" and not allowed to fly anymore. Predicting this isn't hard and then you enact your contingency plans to get spare pilots to the airport. United just didn't seem to have any contingency plans. It was as if they'd never encountered bad weather before - everything was a surprise to them and they just hadn't thought about how to manage service recovery. Having two staff to deal with 100 people trying to rebook flights is ridiculous. As for British Airways, I was really frustrated that nobody from the airline was in the airport to help passengers who were bound to have missed their flights. I was really frustrated, although not surprised, when they told me it was my problem and I'd have to book another flight. But I was really delighted when they relented and booked the flight for me - they've increased my loyalty to the airline. As for United - well they claim they are great at social media - just look at the stream of complaints they deal with daily on Twitter! The problem is I want my airlines to be good at delivering their core service - getting me from A to B when they promise to and when things go wrong recovering the situation fast. Maybe United should spend a little less on social media and a little more on being brilliant at the basics - getting their service right.

A postscript - so what could have made this a fantastic customer experience? Imagine one simple thing. BA knew I was planning to catch the flight to London - I'd already checked in online and accessed my boarding pass. If you miss a plane that you've checked in for chances are something untoward had happened. How would I have felt if upon arrival at Chicago I'd received a text from BA saying - really sorry to have to inform you that we have offloaded you from the London flight because we had to leave without you. We hope everything is OK, as its unusual for you to miss flights (I have never missed a BA flight before and they know this from their records. They also have all of my contacts details on file so the text would have been easy). The final part of the message could have said - "if there's anything we can do to help please call us. That simply act of communication would have changed my mood and attitude completely. I still think British Airways did a great job in the end, but with one small additional act they could have converted me to a customer for life.