Power to the (front-line) people

Most experts on customer service agree that empowering the front-line people to effectively deal with most of the issues that arise with customers is a key to loyal customers. Providing the training and guidance to do that can be difficult, especially when these “front-line” people may be located thousands of miles from your company.

I was reminded of the power of this simple truth again today in dealing with United Airlines. I am a 1MM+ mile flyer with United (making me a permanent Premier Exec). This sometimes gives me perks, though not as good as a 1K or Global Services flyer. I was planning on going on vacation in a couple of weeks and had booked tickets for my wife and I to go. I booked them many months ago using award miles, so the trip cost $10 each.

Because our dog has cancer and only has so much longer to live (though he is kicking butt and has the doctor impressed), we decided to cancel our vacation plans (not sure if the couple we were traveling with finds that a plus or a minus, but I digress). Today I called United to cancel the flights and have the miles re-deposited into my account.

Shocked was I when she informed me that it would cost me $600 in cancellation fees to have my miles re-deposited. (Two travelers on two one-way tickets at $150 per ticket.) I asked the customer service person if I could just forgo the miles and not pay a fee because the policy was unbelievable and I would rather lose the miles (and then work to earn new ones on a “sane” airline) than pay $600 to keep my miles. She quickly offered to only charge me $300. I forcefully said no, that I would prefer to lose the miles than pay for them, even though I would be “pissed.”

She said she had to charge me. I stated that I understood it was not her policy and she was just enforcing idiotic rules from others. I also asked if I could just not fly and lose my miles and be pissed. She asked if I was likely to make this same trip within the year (good suggestion), but not viable. She said she did not want me to be pissed and she would just re-deposit the miles into my account.

Shocked was I, but happy. I thanked her for helping me and returned to my earlier belief that United, like many airlines, has idiotic policies designed to piss off their best travelers, but at least they have some empowered front-line people who are willing and able to work around them.


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1 Response to Power to the (front-line) people

  1. Thought to add some jet fuel to your critique of United airways customer service policies, with this tale of Continental (now merged with United) service. Apology in advance for the length of the story.

    I booked flights in mid-June for a pleasure trip my wife and I are taking late in August. I worked to find an acceptable departure time … given that my wife is not a morning person and it is best to accommodate that when possible. I also wanted to get the most out of our last day and sought return flights late on the return date. As no airlines seemed to offer what I wanted I went to Orbitz to look for combinations. Finding a suitable combination of Jetblue outbound with Continental return was perfect. A few days later, when booking a rental car and checking my departure time, I noticed that the confirmation for my return flight was listed as the same day as my departure flight. Oops! Not sure if it was me or Orbitz but, thinking that the Orbitz software would certainly not have allowed that, I called them to get it changed. Orbitz indicated that they could not change it as it was a now a booked Continental flight and I must contact Continental. At first, the Continental agent indicated that she couldn’t help me as the flight was not booked through Continental but through Orbitz. I pressed. She changed tune to stating their policy is corrections can be made for 24 hours, no longer, and our cost to change would be $300 per person for a one way trip (exceeding the cost of the one-way flights). The customer service agent suggested I just book another one-way to “save money”. I asked to speak to a supervisor, and after the obligatory 15 – 20 minute wait (probably in the hope I would hang up) I was told that I had passed that 24 hour timeline for changes and therefore, I would have to pay the charges. I pleaded. I was then told that “Continental’s policy is “No Waivers, No Favors”. Astounded, I indicated that as a frequent flyer with Jetblue and Southwest, I knew they would jump at the opportunity to remedy such a problem for a customer. I was again astounded when the response was “Jetblue and Southwest are not full-fledged airlines. They are only discount regional carriers.” Unbelievable! I asked for the name and contact information for the chief customer service officer for Continental and the agent said “his name is Jeff and I don’t have any contact information. I again pressed. She indicated “I think his last name is Smick or something like that, We just know him as Jeff. He is the CEO and I couldn’t tell you how to contact him.” I threw in the towel.

    • I booked a less that favorable return time flight on Jetblue.
    • I will avoid Continental/United, period.
    • I went online to research and found that the CEO of Continental is Jeff Smisek and that one claim to fame under his leadership was coming up with a firmer customer service policy to prevent “customer abuse”. They called it “NO WAIVERS, NO FAVORS”.
    • Given that the policy came directly from the top, I didn’t even bother to contact Mr. Smisek.


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