The CEO of Australian bank Westpac says that we could all learn something from the airline industry. I agree, so here’s a learning story from United Airlines.
Last week, I was having a moan on twitter about them. It’s an experience that I’m going to share, but this is not whining. It is how to truly alienate customers. Loyal customers. And I think we could all learn something from it. In fact, maybe you’ve had this experience. Please share if you have.
So, a number of things have happened recently with my relationship with United Airlines, where I’ve been a loyal customer for over twenty years. Most of those years I’ve been one of their top tier customers and get preferential treatment as a result. I got used to it and to the perks of the card. The lounges, the upgrades, the priority access, the first to board, etc. So I was a bit surprised to find myself bumped back to a basic blue cardholder earlier this year. I thought about it and finally twigged it’s because I haven’t flown with United for two years. I’ve flown Lufthansa, LOT, Turkish, Canadian and other airlines of the Star Alliance, but not United. You have to fly with them every eighteen months to retain the status and I forgot. Ah well, my bad. Shame they didn’t warn me.
I then decided to switch my Star Alliance account to Lufthansa to make sure it wouldn’t happen again. After all, I live in Europe and am far more likely to regularly fly with Lufthansa and LOT thank United. Job done.
Now it may well be that they realised this and wanted to get back at me as I flew United last week from Warsaw to Des Moines, via Frankfurt and Chicago. It’s a long haul – 24 hours door-to-door – but no issues. I booked my tickets a couple of months ago and pre-requested window seats on all three flights legs each way. My usual pre-request and United know this as, for over two decades, I’ve flown with them regularly, always in the window seat.
So, I was really angry when, 48 hours before my outbound flight, I get a note saying that due to an aircraft change, you have a new seat assignment. The new seat is reassigned for the longest of my flights – the 10 hour connection from Frankfurt to Chicago – and I’ve been moved from the window to the middle seat in the middle row. The middle-middle, as I call it. The worst seat ever, as it makes me feel claustrophobic and I also don’t get to take pics of the ground from the air (one of my favourite hobbies).
I ring United and they tell me the flight is full and the seat cannot be changed. Tough, you have to live with it. I ask them how come they’ve assigned me the middle-middle seat when I’ve been a gold cardholder for over twenty years and they know I always choose a window seat. The call centre operator says that when the plane is changed, their software reassigns the seats and takes no notice of what was there before. It just does it by name and because my name begins with an ‘S’, by the time it got there, there were only middle-middle seats left.
I’m angry, but hey, it’s only a seat. I mean, after all, they haven’t barred me from the flight (yet), broken my teeth or killed my dog, which they seem to do quite regularly to other passengers.
So, I take the flight and the seat isn’t so bad. It’s an irritation, but a first world problem. Get over it.
Nevertheless, I can’t work out why it’s irritated me so much. The irritation is made worse by a two and a half hour delay at Chicago airport which, again, is not handled well. Now I’m really mad. Then, I wake up the following morning knowing I have to return the same route and guess what? A text message saying that due to an aircraft change, you have a new seat assignment. And guess what? Yep, I’ve been moved from the window seat – which I had just double checked the day before and re-requested – to the middle-middle seat, which I hate.
OK, you say, you’re now a Lufthansa customer so United were just giving you a final FU before you left, after twenty years. But no, there’s a bigger issue at hand here and it involves two major factors.
The first is that I fly so much that I generally avoid the US airlines. I generally choose Asian and Middle Eastern airlines because their service is great, their staff are amazing, their planes are new and their attitude is brilliant. It’s not true all the time, but I love the Asian and Middle East airlines. I hate the US ones because they’re often tired and old. A friend of mine likens it to getting a New York yellow cab when you catch a US airline; you then transfer to a large limousine as you switch to an Asian airline. True.
This is the major theme learning number one: Asia and other nations are new world economies with new infrastructure and new standards of service. America and Europe are old world economies, with old infrastructure and old standards of service.
This is so clear to me because I grew up where everyone wanted American style service. America was known as the great service economy. Today, that crown belongs to the East.
Second, and even more fundamental, is the loss of customer control that United placed me in. I travel non-stop and always choose a window seat. I’m lucky I can do that, and that’s when I realised why I was so annoyed. It’s not the change of the seat, but the removal of my choice without explanation. As a customer, you’ve offered me choices online and through apps. If you then arbitrarily take away those choices and ignore my preferences and requests, then goddam it but you’ve made me, as a customer, mad.
I would liken it to having a place for your best customers in a branch but when any of those customers walk into the branch, you put a closed sign up. Ignoring the customers and changing their choices without recognition, explanation or alternatives, is a suicidal way to run a business.
So yes, I am no longer a customer of United Airlines after twenty years and, from what I saw of other people’s replies to my tweets, many others feel the same way. You didn’t break my teeth or kill my dog, but you did have no empathy or care for the customer. That’s a big mistake for any business. Add onto this that you have new competition with new infrastructure and new service standards, and you have a real problem.
And I guess that’s why I have blogged this. Not to share my annoyance with United Airlines, although it does help, but to share a lesson that if you’re in a global marketplace with new challengers and you do the things you’ve always done, but worse, you’re not going to have a long-term future.
Bye bye United.