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Log In / Register | Dec 19, 2014

Being Context-Aware Is New Bar for Customer Service

I have to start this article with a couple of caveats. I’m about to share with you a customer service fail that happened to me in the week following the NRF Big Show. I don’t usually like to air my complaints and issues with consumer-facing industries in this column because one, I know I’m not a ‘typical’ customer. I’m probably one of the worst customers in the world because my expectations are set by what I know about the industry, and about particular retailers, and it makes me a lot more demanding – and impatient – than almost any of my friends who are not in the industry. Two, it can be ridiculously easy to find customer service fails of one kind or another, so in that sense the fact that something went horribly wrong is not “news” and it certainly isn’t “news analysis”, which is what we try to do with this newsletter. Three, I don’t like to take companies to task in a public forum unless there is something to be learned from it. In this case, I feel strongly that there is indeed something to be learned. So here is my tale of woe.

I had to travel from Denver to Minneapolis to help out a sick friend. She bought that leg of my ticket on Southwest Airlines. I stayed with her for a few days, and then had to travel to a client, which required a 2-leg ticket that was not a round trip: from Minneapolis, connecting through Denver, to Salt Lake on a Wednesday, and then back from Salt Lake to Denver on Thursday (the days become important – pay attention to them). I purchased that ticket on, you guessed it, United. For the record, I am a Platinum traveler on United. I missed 1K this year by 8,000 miles.

In Minneapolis, the plane had a mechanical issue that delayed our flight by nearly 2 hours. As a result, I landed in Denver about fifteen minutes after my connection had already departed for Salt Lake. I had a business meeting that started first thing Thursday morning, through about 4pm that day. When I landed in Denver Wednesday night, there was a United representative waiting with a rebooked ticket for me. The ticket she handed me had me arrive in Salt Lake on Thursday at 3:30pm, about 30 minutes before I would theoretically be heading for the airport to catch my 7pm return. In other words, completely useless.

So I got in line at the service counter. Knowing how these things work, I was on Southwest’s mobile app checking their flight choices. There was a 9pm flight that would get me in to Salt Lake at 10:30pm. Unfortunately, as it had been a rather long trip already, and to the arctic tundra that is Minneapolis, my bag was too big to carry on. I had to check it in Minneapolis. If United couldn’t get me on a flight first thing Thursday morning, and if I could get my hands on my bag, I would get on the Southwest flight Wednesday night. But I wasn’t going to try to go to Salt Lake overnight without my bag. Plus I was in a unique situation – I was “stranded” in my hometown. Whether I had my bag or not, I could go home, enjoy a night’s sleep in my own bed, and head back to the airport in the morning after taking a shower in my own bathroom already stocked with my own toiletries.

Here’s where things went horribly awry. At the customer service desk, I explained my situation – that a Thursday afternoon arrival into Salt Lake was worthless considering my return flight would then be 3 hours later. She couldn’t get me on an earlier flight. So I told the representative that I had a checked bag, and I wanted it back. I showed her my baggage claim with the barcode. She said it would take two hours to get my bag, and it would show up on carousel 15.

Okay. So at 7pm on Wednesday, my chances of getting to Salt Lake that night essentially fell to zero, because there was no way I’d get my bag in time to make the 9pm flight on Southwest. So I cancelled my useless rebooked leg and kept the return flight, and proceeded to the Southwest counter to buy a one-way ticket to Salt Lake that left at the breathless hour of 7am, and made me only about an hour late for my meeting. That was manageable. And then I sat down in front of carousel 15 and waited for my bag.

At the two-hour mark, I approached the baggage services desk and told them it had been two hours and no bag, and could they please check on where my bag was because it was getting late and I’d like to get some sleep at some point. The representative said, “Express hasn’t been answering their phone, and I don’t know what’s going on. They may not have even started looking for your bag yet. What I can do is put in another request to pull it.”

You mean, start the clock over again for another two hours? Like 11pm? When I had to leave for the airport at 5am the next morning? No way. So I said, “Okay, well, if you have no idea when my bag is going to get here, what I’d like to do is just have it sent to my house. You’ve lost my bag – you can’t tell me where it is – and I have to go, and I don’t need the bag tonight, so I’m going to leave now and when you find it, put it on a truck to my house.”

Oh no, apparently you can’t do that, because it’s in the middle of a leg. By this time, my patience was beyond thin, so yes, I threw a fit. I demanded a manager. I was tired of explaining, and I was definitely way less than thrilled about the service. The manager showed up, listened to my story, turned to the woman and said, “Just send her her bag and quit making a big deal.” Hallelujah, right? I almost gave her one of my little kudo slips that United gives you right then and there. I should’ve. It’s the only thing I regret about my own actions on this fiasco trip.

So the rep who gave me a hard time looked up my record – this was now the third time my bag record had been touched that night, the first one being at 7pm, and she said, “Oh wait. Your bag is already in Salt Lake. They put it on another flight out of Minneapolis and they scanned it in at around 5:30pm tonight.”

So I had just spent almost three hours sitting around Denver International Airport waiting for a bag that wasn’t there. And, in fact, that United had known wasn’t there all along. With that one piece of information in my hands at 7pm, this is what I would’ve done instead: cancelled the whole rest of my journey on United, and booked a round trip ticket on Southwest that would’ve gotten me in to Salt Lake Wednesday night, and back to Denver Thursday night. This has major implications that I’ll get to in a minute. Instead, I missed that flight, blew three hours because no one at United that I talked to actually bothered to check where my bag was, and now was facing a 7am flight there, a 7pm flight back, with my bag currently in Salt Lake and probably on its way to some kind of limbo where I would never see it again.

So I kept the return to Denver on United, because I didn’t want to close out the itinerary that was attached to my bag. 7am dawned, the flight to Salt Lake was bumpy but otherwise okay, and I landed in an encroaching snow storm. Except it wasn’t snow, it was freezing rain. I paid a cab $100 to take me to my meeting, I was only really an hour late, and everything went off swimmingly. Brian was there too, and he covered til I got there. At about 1pm, I received a phone call from United telling me my bag was put on a plane to Denver and it would land there at 2:30pm. They would take the bag to my house. It might even get to my house before the time I got home myself. The roads on the way back to the airport were wet but not nearly so bad as they were in the morning. Things were looking up.

At 4:30pm, my husband called me. “Your flight has been cancelled.” What? I didn’t receive any notices about this. I was 20 minutes from the airport, so I just go. I get to the United counter. Yep, my flight was cancelled, and the earliest flight they could get me on was 8am on Sunday. Yes. Sunday. It’s Thursday. And I have no bag – they put it on one of the flights that got out before all the flights were cancelled!

One time-out here. When the flight from Minneapolis was delayed, United acted quickly on my behalf, at least trying to solve my problem before I even got to Denver. Granted, they did a lousy job, but at least they tried.

When the Salt Lake flight was cancelled (note that a plane supposedly slid off the runway that morning – it did make the news – but apparently only United cancelled flights. Everyone else was still flying), United did nothing until I showed up to try to board my cancelled flight. I was practically the last sucker in the airport to try to rebook my flight, so naturally I was royally screwed. Why the difference in treatment? Because one was weather and the other was mechanical? So even though I’m a Platinum Premiere, flying on a pretty expensive ticket, I’m the last to be saved from being stranded in Salt Lake, simply because I didn’t know about the cancellation until I practically got to the airport? I’ll come back to this at the end.

At this point, Brian suggested that I look into driving. It’s a 9 hour drive from Salt Lake to Denver, and leaving at 6pm would get me into Grand Junction at around 11pm. I called our travel agent, booked the car and the hotel room in Grand Junction, cancelled my return flight, and was directed by the United counter agent to the baggage service desk in Salt Lake to pick up my “care pack”, which was a brown paper bag with a tooth brush, a comb, and a couple of wet wipes.

I was in a real bind about my bag, because I wear contacts. Daily disposables. And without them, I might as well be blind. I can’t drive without my contacts. Heck, I can’t hardly see past the end of my nose. I didn’t have any in my computer backpack (something I will fix going forward), and my spare glasses were in, you guessed it, my bag.

I did have a moment, standing at the baggage service counter waiting for my paper sack of sorry, where I contemplated asking the rep to verify that my bag really and truly made it out of Salt Lake. But I didn’t have the claim tag – I’d left that with my husband, figuring he’d need it when they dropped my bag off at my house (silly me!). And I remembered the two-hour thing that happened to me in Denver. If I waited 2 hours to try to get my bag, and it turned out they didn’t actually have it – not to mention that I had a voicemail on my phone, which I still have today, saying that my bag was definitely headed to Denver – then it would be a minimum of 8pm before I got on the road to Grand Junction, five hours away. And I was exhausted. I was already unhappy about driving alone across US 6 to I-70 to roll into Grand Junction near midnight. Remember, I had been up since 4am.

So I skipped it. I took my paper sack of nearly-worthless toiletries (could you imagine 3 days on that?) and barged past other desperate people to get my rental car. I stopped at a Target and bought a contact lens case and some saline solution, hoping I could extend the life of my daily contacts overnight once I got to Grand Junction, along with a couple bottles of Diet Coke and a pizza, my dinner, which I ate in the car.

In the midst of all this, I happened to check Southwest (they were sold out). But the flight that I would’ve purchased, back on Wednesday? It was still flying. It had not been cancelled.

I arrived in Grand Junction, a very uneventful and almost pleasant drive, all except for the last half hour when I had to pry my eyes open to make it. I stayed in a lovely Clarion Inn that was staffed with the nicest, most helpful people (they gave me deodorant to add to my United wet wipes, along with a free breakfast). I called my husband the next morning as I departed at around 9am (the dailies survived the night and weren’t too bad for facing another 4 hours on the road) and asked about my bag – did they drop it off this morning?

No. I asked him to please find my bag. He called back thirty minutes later. My bag was in Salt Lake City. It did not actually make it on the plane like I had been told. If I had pressed my case at the counter Thursday night, I could’ve had it for my overnight stay. Was I mad at that point? I’m still mad. I’m furious. Even better, only after my husband yelled at them for an hour – the piece de resistance being when he said, “This is really how you treat your Platinum customers?” and she said, “Oh wait, she’s Platinum?” – they did get my bag on a plane out of Salt Lake and it happened to arrive in Denver at the same time I did. Literally slid off of good old carousel 15 right as I was stalking my way to the DIA baggage service counter to try one more time to find my bag (I was back there because I had to drop off my rental car at the airport and pick up my own car in the airport parking lot). I got home at about 3pm on Friday afternoon, which was about 48 hours earlier than United had said they could. And I brought home my own bag myself.

So here’s my beef. All of this could’ve been avoided with one little piece of information: that my bag had been put on another flight out of Minneapolis and that it had already made it to Salt Lake before I even landed in Denver.

United has a mobile app. It’s actually a pretty good one – pretty helpful, as far as these things go. Why is it that I have to go to a counter agent to find out where my bag is? Why can’t I input or take a picture of my claim tag and get alerts sent to me through the app as to when my bag is scanned and where? I get this kind of information from UPS and FedEx all the time. And especially, why is this kind of information not front and center to a gate agent or counter representative when they pull up my record? This information should be transparent and provided to customers who want it, in real time. It’s a critical piece of my context – of my needs – which United theoretically should be paying attention to. Should theoretically be addressing. My context – all information completely available to United – was missed all over the place. Why would you even bother rebooking me on a flight that arrives 3 hours before I have to turn around on my return flight? If you’re going to be proactive on my behalf, at least pay attention to my situation. If the solution you’ve got obviously doesn’t work, shouldn’t there be some sort of exception management that kicks in?

Here’s another piece of missed context: when my flight was cancelled in Salt Lake, if I’m supposedly a more important customer – given all the business I’ve given them – why am I the last to be offered an option to get out of Salt Lake? Can you really look a customer in the face – a high-tier customer – and tell them it will be three days before you can get them out of a city you just stranded them in? And then offer them a lunch sack with a comb as a consolation prize? On top of that, United – some part of United – knew that my bag was in Salt Lake at that point. But was that connection made when I was standing at the counter? When I howled over three days? When I came back and cancelled the lame Sunday flight after finding my own way out of town? Nope.

On top of that, the fact that I was a Platinum Premiere customer was completely lost on the call center rep who pulled up my record after United decided to just stash my bag in Salt Lake for awhile, apparently in no hurry to send it back. It wasn’t until my husband pointed it out to them that he got any kind of service. Until then, the response was “Get in line, buddy.”

So here’s the punch line to my very long story, and one that the retail industry – any customer service industry – should take note of. I, a bleeding edge customer, now expect that you are going to use every piece of information you have about me to help me. And not only that, I expect you to share that information with me so that I don’t have to rely on your people when it comes down to it. When you don’t do these things, I don’t trust you. Yeah, I’m a bleeding edge customer. But what that really means is that everyone else is not that far behind me. So your time to get things right is very short.

This is the bar that will be set for customer service, and soon. If I spend $2,000 a month at your store, mass merchant, I expect to be treated very differently if I want to return something than someone who just walks in off the street and has no history with you. If I’m a top-tier loyalty customer, I expect you to know who I am when I engage with you, no matter which channel I’m using, and I most especially expect you to know that when I have a problem. And what I expect most of all is that you are going to provide me with services that meet my needs. Every consumer-facing company provides a service, whether you are Walmart or United or Clarion. United is not in the business of planes. It’s in the business of getting people – and their belongings – safely to their destination in a timely manner. Walmart is not in the business of selling stuff. It’s in the business of helping people afford the things they need.

Only when you understand context can you provide service. If the retail industry is going to transform itself to be customer-centric – to differentiate not on the products it sells but the services it provides – then retailers had better stop guessing about what to sell customers, and start focusing on how to help them. I mean this in both the strategic, brand sense, as well as the everyday execution of tactics.

The business of selling consumers stuff is dead, and only getting deader. And us consumers? We’re growing more aware of this fact every day.

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