Is it just me or is a great customer service experience
really becoming a rarity? Service, perhaps, but often without a
smile. At least one exception to this is Southwest Airlines. Some
of my colleagues wouldn't be caught dead flying Southwest - they joke about the
herding of passengers, etc. But each time I fly the airlines I encounter
business travelers who say they'll choose Southwest every time it's an option
(as do I). I have never had a poor customer service experience with
Southwest. In 15 years of flying Southwest, I've been bumped
off a flight just once. And in that instance, they apologized profusely,
spent time with me to ensure I could still get to my meeting on time, and
issued me a generous flight voucher. So, even though I would've liked to
have been on the flight, no real harm was done and I left the experience
feeling good about the situation and valued as a customer.
Contrast this with my United experience last week. Due to construction delays on the interstate and literally no parking available in the airport lot causing me to circle like a hawk for 25 minutes, I tried to check in via a kiosk 29 minutes before the flight. The message came back stating that check-in was no longer available and that I was being placed on standby for the NEXT flight 2 hours later. When I turned to ask a United representative what that meant, she replied "you're late" and turned and walked away. Finding that "detailed" explanation not very helpful, I decide to try my luck at the gate. I love KCI - within 2 minutes, I'm at the gate. The flight is early in the boarding process so I'm thinking this looks good. But the 3 agents at the gate won't make eye contact with any of us standing there, pleading for assistance. I finally dare to interrupt, explain my situation and ask what are my chances to get on the plane as stand-by since I was a ticketed passenger on the plane. I get a "you're joking" look and am told I am on stand-by for the next plane, not this one and even though I have more questions, immediately lose the eye contact again. Eventually I found out, from other passengers because the agents certainly weren't sharing, that there was no standby because the flight had been so over-booked that at least 20 passengers got bumped. I'm guessing those that were at the airport at least 1 minute earlier than me got a voucher of some sort.
To make matters worse, I find out (again from other passengers) that the same thing happened to an earlier flight so now there are at least 40 people on the stand-by list and every flight out for the rest of the day is also overbooked. I asked another agent about this (who affirmed), explained to him that I had a meeting started in Chicago
that night so what are my options. He curtly replies that I am on the stand-by list, period. I asked him what my chances were to get on the next flight and his words were pretty meaningless, but I could tell by his expression that it was hopeless. He did finally share a bit of information with me: the stand-bys are chosen by 2 criteria - how much you paid for the ticket and your United miles award status. It does not matter how long you've been at the airport or what flight you were originally booked on. So, given that I rarely fly United (I wonder why), I figured it was pretty much a given that United would not be taking me to Chicago this day.
So, I was off to search the Internet to identify plan B. Here's the kicker: United was still selling tickets for all the flights out that day/night - for $1200 - even though there were already 40 people waiting to get on the already overbooked flights, and in all likelihood that number would grow. Although like me, many customers were trying to find different flights or simply giving up and going home.
I booked myself on a Southwest flight going out later in the evening and talked with a very pleasant agent on the phone, by the way, who without my asking, also suggested that I try to get on an earlier flight (she gave me all the flight times) and indicated that since I paid full-fare for the flight, there would be no stand-by fee.
I approached the United ticket counter for one last insult. I noticed the individual joking and laughing with her co-workers so I think to myself, oh good, here's someone in a good mood, maybe she'll be helpful. Wrong. The second she turns away from her colleagues, she immediately replaces the friendly face with a "and what do you want" face. I tell her that I need to cancel the outgoing flight, but that I do plan to return with United the next day. I ask for a refund, but not surprisingly, she says the tix change fee ($100) is the same as the flight cost. Funny thing is, that means the flight out portion of the ticket was $100, but the flight back was $250 since the round-trip cost was $350 (doesn't that seem unlikely that the return ticket was 250% the cost of the outgoing when both are mid-week flights?). BTW, just out of curiosity, I watched the agent for a few minutes - she continued with the smiling banter with colleagues followed by expressionless exchanges with customers. It was bizarre, almost schizophrenic.
Anyway, my same-day purchase of the Southwest ticket was a mere $126. I rushed over to the gate where there was a flight leaving. These agents were busy too, as they were in the middle of calling up stand-by and trying to get the flight out...but as soon as I approached, they made eye contact and added me to the stand-by list. By some miracle, I was the last stand-by that made the plane (I wonder how many were United customers). I made it to Chicago and was only 15 minutes late for my meeting (and that's because I flew into Midway and had to venture my way up to an O'hare hotel - which is the only reason I took the United flight in the first place!)
So, sorry about the long story (the wound is fresh). Consider, is your customer service more like that of Southwest or United, or somewhere in between? Now consider, of the two, which financial disposition would you prefer? Coincidence?