|This photo was taken in Denver on January 25, 2013.|
"But my plane is right there."
We've all been there. Our plane arrives late to O'hare. We run half a mile from gate B21 to F12A, only to watch the jet bridge pull back from the plane. And then starts the dreaded dance. We run up to the gate agent and demand to know why we can't get on the plane. The agent explains that the door is shut and the plane is set to leave. We scream back, "But my plane is right there!" We spout things back and forth and the agent leaves.
So we march over the the customer service area and begin demanding things like first class on the next flight. We scream things like, "Does it not mean anything to be 1K any more?" And we get frustrated and declare, "I will never fly United again!" We call our secretary and proclaim, "Sarah, book me on American from here on out."
I've heard this story a lot in years since the United and Continental merger. In fact, the situation in first paragraph happened to me (but I didn't scream, and I don't have a secretary named Sarah, nor did I ever proclaim I won't fly United again). But there is a mob mentality about United's Customer Service. It is a belief that United has the worst Customer Service in the airline Industry.
Is it true? I'm often told that I love United because I'm Global Services. Go back to my post titled "The Journey." Read this: On a sunny March day in 2009, I took the train from the Elizabeth Station to EWR. I wandered down the halls of Terminal A, and found my place on the first of many United flights. That year I would reach Premier. As I sat down in my seat for the first time, I called my dad and I said, “I remember why we always wanted to fly United.” I was in Heaven.
To be clear, Heaven was seat 32F on an Airbus 320.
I have always loved United. When I became a Premier member (pre-merger) I thought I had scored the golden ticket! But I was happy with United without any premier status. My love for United isn't dependent on Global Services. Truth be told, I had estimated that I was going to lose my GS status in 2015, and I was great with being a 1K again.
I've heard of a lot of people who feel like they deserve to be 1K or GS. The airlines set goals; all of them set goals. And if you don't meet those goals, you don't earn the status. There's been a saying in my house over the last several years, "You don't get <insert status I'm trying to get to that year> by not flying." Up until GS I had earned all of my statuses by flying segments, not miles. So to earn 1K, I had to fly 120 segments in a year, a majority of which were on EMB145s. I earned the status, but I never felt like I deserved anything.
After the merger there was a lot of position jockeying. At United it was a seniority nightmare. That battle began to create a lot of tension for the employees. As the employees were frustrated, people began to feel that the service quality went down. At the same time there was a mash up between the OnePass and Mileage Plus programs, creating a DYKWIA nightmare.
These two mashups filled people with a lot of emotion. Fast forward three years with no resolve and add in that United wanted to outsource. Lay off a few thousand employees and throw fear and anger into that volatile bag of emotions.
It was the perfect storm.
In the last year I have watched a lot of people turn their backs on United. They call themselves "displaced" and "refugees" as if there was a natural disaster or a war. The biggest complaint is that "customer service is gone."
One of the most common complaints was that these frequent flyers couldn't get upgrades any more. They were Silver or Gold members and often were at the bottom of a long list of potential upgrades. So a guy books a flight from ORD to DEN and pays $210 plus taxes. I book the same flight at $650, and he gets mad because I get the upgrade. Which is an easy transition into the next issue. MileagePlus has changed.
People got really upset with United when the miles were devalued and when they switched to a spend-based mileage accrual. Previously it was an easy system to work. Book a flight to China on the cheapest ticket you can, use a GPU to upgrade, and earn 10,000 miles. When it changes to spend, it's not near as easy to game.
Wait, none of these things are customer service? Sure, they're customer retention, but where does customer service come in? United passengers began to feel like they were not the priority any more. They looked to Jeff Smisek, saying that he cares more about profit than he does about customers. And they took that belief system with them to gates and counters. The lowest-paid United employees then had the privilege of getting the beating of a lifetime because of issues they didn't create.
And then they "couldn't help." When the United passengers were mad because they couldn't "score the upgrade," they would take it out on the agents who "couldn't do anything for them." This is a vicious cycle. I believe X and I'm going to take Y action believing that X will happen. When I took Y action, X did happen, I bet it will happen again, so I'll try. But, by rule, Y can't lead to anything but X. So it becomes like a self-fulfilling prophesy that just continues to harden the belief system.
Then you take that belief system to the world. Social Media is instant gratification for most people—I have a complaint and I want the world to know it. "@united sucks. They can't do anything any more." 1 like. 10 likes. 250 likes. "@angrypax I know, right? I was thinking things weren't good, then I saw your tweet! #unitedsux." Social Media allows these belief systems to fester and brew. Before you know it, there's an entire group of people out there who are just regurgitating the same set of "facts" over and over to help them cement their beliefs.
united sucks." What you find is what a lot of people are looking for. With one exception... mine.
I wrote a response to a blog titled "15 Reasons Why Flying United Airlines Sucks." My response has been in the top 10 search results for the keyword "united sucks" ever since. In fact, I get more visits to my blog from that Google search than from any other source.
Why is that? Because people want to back their belief systems. Sandler Sales Training talks about a BAT Triangle. BAT stands for Behaviors, Attitudes (belief systems), and Techniques. What BAT teaches us is that Attitudes drive Behaviors ,which creates results that help reinforce Attitudes. I would encourage you to visit Sandler's site, or visit my friends at Market Sense in Austin to learn more.
Sandler teaches that we have to change our behaviors to see different results so that we can change our belief systems.
One of the major problems with this comes to the amount of money that United puts into its social media. Although United has made a huge change in the last two years with their social team, there are not enough resources to combat the constant negative press on Social Media. As customers try to reinforce their beliefs, United can't provide the behaviors to help customers change.
Remember, people say that I love United because I am Global Services. The truth is that I love United because I love United. Heaven was seat 32F on an Airbus 320, and that hasn't changed. Okay, yes, I might never sit back there any more, but it's because of my beliefs that allow me to do so.
I greatly value all of the employees at United. I have forged a lot of friendships at OKC. My belief system states that these employees are the ones who are going to get me where I need to be, and my safety is their top priority, and so I treat them like the most important people in my life (you know, because they'll keep me from dying on a flight).
A few weeks ago I was flying from OKC to IAH. There were two flights departing at the same time because of delays. I was supposed to be on a EMB145, but it broke. So the agents began moving everyone over the the E175 that was about to leave. When I got my new seating assignment I was in 23C. First class was mostly full. My biggest issue is that I really want to sit next to a window (so I can take #mikeshot photos). I went over to one of my friends who is an agent and asked him if there was any better seat I could get. I explained that I really wanted a window. Within moments I had a first class ticket. It's not what I was asking for, but it's what I got. And I get this kind of service every where.
You get that kind of service because you're Global Services. Nope. I remember the day I became Premier. My 30th segment was from LAX to DEN. I walked up to the agent at DEN and explained my story. I said, "I know I probably won't get the upgrade, I just really want to see my name on the list because I think it would be cool." What did she do? She handed me the first class seat. I sure wasn't GS then, and I'm pretty sure I only spent like 80 bucks on that fare.
|I wrote this card and posted it to Instagram|
when the most recent set of layoffs was announced.
Often I write them to people I didn't really even meet. My favorite story came from Denver. I knew I was headed to baggage claim and so I wrote a card to "A Flyer Friendly Baggage Handler." I walked up to a random employee and handed him the card and said thank you. I immediately walked away.
The gentleman hunted me down a few minutes later and said, "Sir, this isn't for me." I assured him it was for him. "No, sir, I'm an a** hole, this can't be for me." I laughed.
"I know this card was for you. I wrote it for you because you have helped me today, and I wanted to say thank you." He told me he hadn't helped me at all. "Sure, maybe you haven't helped me directly, but you work for United, so you have helped me." He looked at me for a minute and said, "Maybe you guys do value us."
United doesn't have bad customer service. People just have a lot of twisted belief systems about United. I have a lot of respect for Jeff Smisek, and I know I'm a lone wolf because of that. But no matter what he and the executive team do at United, here's the fact: every day United employees help me get where I'm going and they do it in the safest way possible. That's customer service.
If you've left United for another airline, I hope to see you back in the friendly skies some day. If you're thinking about leaving, I would encourage you to just change your behaviors and see if it changes the way you feel about United. And if you love United, Thank You.
But, hey, I'm just some guy who likes to look at airplanes, so what do I know?