This week I had a rather frustrating customer experience. Now, in these kinds of situations some folks like to take to their blogs to spew their frustration in the direction of the Internet and feel a sense of catharsis.
To be honest, what I found frustrating about this experience was less the outcome and more the way the situation was managed. The frustration then turned into an interesting little thought experiment about the psychology going on in this experience and how it could potentially be improved.
So, I sat down and thought about why the experience was frustrating and came away with some conclusions that I thought might be interesting to share. This may be useful for those of you building your own customer service/engagement departments.
A while ago I booked some flights to take my family to England for Christmas. Using an airline Erica and I are both big fans of, we managed to book the trip using miles. We had to be a little flexible on dates/times, but we figured this would be worth it to save the $1500+.
Like anyone picking flights, the times and dates were carefully considered. My parents live up in the north of England and it takes about four hours to get from Heathrow to their house (with a mixture of trains and taxis). Thus we wanted to arrive at Heathrow from San Francisco earlier in the day, and for our return flight to be later in the day to accommodate this four hour trip.
Recently I was sent an email that the airline had decided to change the times of our flights. More specifically, the return flight which was due to leave at 3.15pm was now shifted to closer to 12pm. As such, to get to Heathrow with the requisite few hours before our flight it would have mean’t us leaving my parents house at around 5am. Ugh.
Now, to help illustrate the severity of this issue, this would mean getting a 3 year-old up at 4.15am to embark on a four hour journey to London and of course the 11 hour flight back to San Francisco. The early morning would make the whole trip more difficult.
As you can imagine, we were not particularly amused by this. So, I went to call the airline to see if we could figure out a better solution.
I called the airline and politely illustrated the problem, complete with all the details of the booking.
I was then informed that they couldn’t do anything to change the flight time (obviously), and there were no other flights that day (understandable).
So, I asked if they could simply re-book my family onto the same flight the following day. This would then mean we could head to the airport, stay in a hotel that evening near Heathrow, and make the noon flight…all without having to cut our holiday short by a day.
I was promptly informed that this was not going to work. The attendant told me that because we had purchased a miles-based ticket, they could only move us to miles-based ticketed seats the following day without a charge. I was also informed that the airline considers anything less than a 5 hour time change to be “insignificant” and thus are not obliged to provide any additional amendments or service. To cap things off I was told that if I had read the Terms Of Service this would have all been abundantly clear.
To explore all possible options I asked how much the change fees would be to move to the same flight the following day but in non-mileage based seats and the resulting cost was $1500; quite a number to swallow.
As I processed this information I was rather annoyed. I booked these tickets in good faith and the airline had put us in this awkward position with the change of times. While I called to explore a flexible solution to the problem, I was instead told there would be no flexibility and that they were only willing to meet their own defined set of obligations.
As you can imagine, I was not particularly happy with this outcome so I felt it appropriate to escalate. I politely asked to speak to a manager and was informed that the manager would not take my call as this was merely a ticket-related issue. I pressed further to ask to speak to a manager and after a number of additional pushbacks about this not being important enough for a manager and that they may not take my call, I was eventually put through.
When I spoke to the manager the same response was re-iterated. We finished the conversation and I made it clear I was not frustrated with any of the staff who I spoke to (they were, after all, just doing their job and don’t set airline policy), but I was frustrated with the airline and I would not be doing business with them in future.
Now to be clear, I am not expecting to be treated like royalty. I just felt the overall situation could have possibly been handled better.
A Better Experience
Now, to be clear before we proceed, I am not an expert on customer service, how it is architected, and the methodology of delivering the best customer service while protecting the legal and financial interests of a company.
I am merely a customer, but I do think there were some underlying principles that exist in people and how we engage around problems such as this that the airline seems to be ignoring.
Let’s first look at what I think the key problems were in this engagement:
Accountability and Assurance
At no point throughout the discussion did one of the customer service reps say:
“Mr Bacon, we know we have put you in an awkward situation, but we assure you we are going to do our level best to find a solution that you and your family are happy with.”
A simple acknowledgement such as this serves three purposes. Firstly, it lets the customer feel the company is willing to accept responsibility. Secondly, it demonstrates a collaborative human side to the company. Finally, and as we will explore later, it equalizes the relationship between the customer and the company. This immediately gets the conversation off to a good start.
Obligations vs. Gestures Of Goodwill
Imagine your friend does something that puts you in an awkward position, for example, saying they will take care of part of a shared project which they then say they are not going to have time to deliver.
Now imagine the conversation looks like this:
You: you have kind of put me in an awkward situation here, friend. What do you think you can do to help resolve it?
Friend: well, based upon the parameters of the project and our friendship I am only obliged to provide you with a certain level of service, which is X.
This is not how human beings operate. When there is a sense that a shared agreement has been compromised, it is generally recommended that the person who compromised the agreement will (a) demonstrate a willingness to rectify the situation and (b) provide a sense of priority in doing so.
When we replace thoughtful problem-solving with “obligations” and “terms of service”, which while legally true and accurate, it changes the nature of the conversation to be one that is more pedantic and potentially adversarial. This is not what anyone wants. It essentially transforms the discussion from a collaboration to a sense that one party is covering their back and wants to put in minimal effort to solve the problem. This neatly leads me to…
Trust and Favors
Psychology has taught us that favors play an important role in the world. When we feel someone has treated us well we socially feel a responsibility to repay the favor.
Consequently in business when you feel a company goes above and beyond, consumers will often repay that generosity significantly.
In this case the cost to me of reseating my family was $1500. Arguably this will be a lower actual cost to the airline, let’s say $1000.
Now, let’s say the airline said:
“Mr Bacon, as I mentioned it is difficult to move you to the seats on the flight the following day as you have a mileage ticket, but I have talked to my manager and we would be happy to provide a 30% discount.”
If this happened it would demonstrate a number of things. Firstly, the airline was willing to step outside of their published process to solve the customer’s problem. It demonstrates a willingness to find a middle-ground, and it shows that the airline wants to minimize the cost for the customer.
If this had occurred I would have come away singing the praises of the airline. I would be tweeting about how impressed I was, telling my friends that they are “different to the usual airlines”, and certainly keeping my business with them.
This is because I would feel that they took care of me and did me a favor. As such, and as we see elsewhere in the world, I would feel an urge to repay that favor, both with advocacy and future business.
Unfortunately, the actual response of what they are obliged to do and that they are covered by their terms of service shows an unwillingness to work together to find a solution.
Thus, the optimal solution would cost them a $500 loss but assure future business and customer advocacy. The current solution saves them $500 but means they are less likely to get my future business or advocacy.
Relativity and Expectations
People think largely in terms of relativity. We obviously compare products and services but we also compare social constructs and our positions in the world too.
This is important because a business transaction is often a power struggle. If you think about the most satisfying companies you have purchased a product or service from, invariably the ones where you felt like an equal in the transaction was more rewarding. Compare for example the snooty restaurant waiter that looks down at you versus the chatty and talkative waiter who makes you feel at ease. The latter makes you feel more of an equal and thus feels like a better experience.
In this case the airline customer service department made it very clear from the outset that they considered themselves in a position of power. The immediate citing of obligations, terms of service, an unwillingness to escalate the call, and other components essentially put the customer in a submissive position, which rarely helps contentious situations.
The knock-on effect here is expectations: when a customer feels unequal it sets low expectations in the business relationship and we tend to think less highly of the company. The world is littered with examples of this sense of an unequal relationship with many cable companies getting a particularly bad reputation here.
Another interesting construct in psychology is the importance of choice. Choices provide a fulfilling experience for people and it makes people feel a sense of control and empowerment.
In this case the airline provided no real choices with the exception of laying down $1500 for full-price tickets for the non-mileage seats. If they had instead provided a few options (e.g. a discounted ticket, an option to adjust the flight time/date, or even choices for speaking to other staff members such as a manager to rectify the situation) the overall experience would feel more rewarding.
The Optimal Solution
So, based on all this, how would I have recommended the airline handled this? Well, imagine this conversation (this is somewhat paraphrased to keep it short, but you get the drift):
Me: Good afternoon. We have a bit of a problem where your airline has changed the time my family’s return flights. Now, we have a 3 year-old on this trip and this is going to result in getting up at 4.15am to make the new time. As you can imagine this is going to be stressful, particularly with such a long trip. Is there anything you can do to help?
Airline: I am terribly sorry to hear this. Can you let me know your booking ID please?
Me: Sure, it is ABCDEFG.
Airline: Thank-you, Mr Bacon. OK, I can see the problem now. Firstly, I want to apologize for this. We know that the times of reservations are important and I am sorry your family are in this position. Unfortunately we had to change the time due to XYZ factors, but I also appreciate you are in an uncomfortable situation. Rest assured I want to do everything to make your trip as comfortable as possible. Would you mind if I put you on hold and explore a few options?
Airline: OK, Mr Bacon. So the challenge we have is that because you booked a mileage-based ticket, our usual policy is that we can only move you to mileage-based seats. Now, for the day after we sadly don’t have any of these types of seats left. So, we have a few options. Firstly, I could explore a range of flight options across dates that work for you to see if there is something that works by moving the mileage-based seats free of charge. Secondly, we could explore a refund of your miles so you could explore another airline or ticket. Now, there are normal seats available the day after but the fee to switch to them would be around $1500. We do though appreciate you are in an uncomfortable position, particularly with a child, and we also appreciate you are a regular customer due to you booking mileage seats. Unfortunately while I am unable to provide these new seats free of charge…I wish I could but I am unable to…I can provide a discount so we provide a 1/3 off, so you pay $1000. Another option is that I can put you through to my manager if none of these options will work for you. What would you prefer?
Me: Thanks for the options. I think I will go for the $1000 switch, thanks.
Airline: Wonderful. Again, Mr Bacon, I apologize for this…I know none of us would want to be in this position, and we appreciate your flexibility in finding a solution.
If something approximating this outcome occurred, I would have been quite satisfied with the airline, I would have felt empowered, left with a sense that they took care of me, and I would be sharing the story with my friends and colleagues.
This would have also mitigated taking a manager’s time and reduced the overall call time to around 10 – 15 minutes as opposed to the hour that I was on the phone.
To put the cherry on top I would then recommend that the airline sends an email a few days later that says something like this:
Dear Mr Bacon,
One of my colleagues shared with me the issue you had with your recent booking and the solution that was sourced. I want to also apologize for the change in times (we try to minimize this as best we can because we know how disruptive this can be).
I just wanted to follow up and let you know that if you have any further issues or questions, please feel free to call me directly. You can just call the customer service line and use extension 1234.
Jane Bloggs, Customer Service Team Manager
This would send yet another signal of clear customer care. Also, while I don’t have any data on-hand to prove this, I am sure the actual number of customers that would call Jane would be tiny, thus you get the benefit of the caring email without the further cost of serving the customer.
Now, some of you may say “well, what if the airline can’t simply slash the cost by a third for the re-seating?”
In actuality I think the solution in many cases is secondary to the handling of the case. If the airline in this case had demonstrated a similar optimal approach that I outline here (acknowledging the issue, sympathizing with the customer, an eagerness to solve the problem creatively, providing choices etc), yet they could not provide any workable solution, I suspect most people would be reasonably satisfied with the effort.
Eventually they never solved the problem in our case, so a 4.15am wake-up and a grumpy Jack it is. While rather annoying, in the scheme of things it is manageable. I just thought the psychology behind the story was interesting.
Anyway, sorry for the long post, but I hope this provides some interesting food for thought for those of you building customer service platforms for your companies.