Customer Service


American Breaks People

It’s easy to lose sight of people in a CRM discussion, focusing instead on the great technology and what it lets us do under optimum circumstances. We should keep the customer in mind at all times, however, for without them what are we?

Forgetting the customer is dangerous both for customers and vendors in this social age. Far from being a universal good, automation can make it hard to reach a human being when circumstances require a human to make sense of reality. It’s dangerous for vendors too, because that disconnect results in unhappy customers who have the ability to tell their stories in the most public forums.

United Breaks Guitars — the song, the book, and the YouTube series — provides a graphic example of how things can go bad and how some organizations are culturally misaligned with the era of customers.

For the uninitiated, UBG chronicles a months-long saga of one customer trying to get the airline to repair a guitar badly damaged in transit by baggage handlers — all to little avail. The customer, Dave Carroll shredded United’s reputation by writing songs about the incident, which were recorded on the way to going viral on YouTube.

UBG might be the poster child for what not to do and how important it is to adapt to the customer era — but it is not the only example.

From Bad to Worse

I recently became aware of another incident involving an airline in which good CRM — the attitude and approach to business, if not the technology — was completely lacking. The Villaluz family of three, Americans of Filipino extraction, wanted to fly from Boston to Dallas on American Airlines in July. Through a series of missteps, they instead ended up broke, baggage-less and blacklisted in New York’s LaGuardia airport.

The original flight from Boston, American 2607, was delayed and ultimately canceled after about six hours. Passengers were given the option of taking AA 2172 Boston to LaGuardia for a connection to Dallas AA 1144 leaving at 7:59 p.m. The airline also gave them food vouchers.

The Villaluz family are the salt of the earth, sources have told me, known for volunteering and giving to their church and community. Their trip was to have been part vacation and part work. The father, Ken Villaluz, is a pastor who had been scheduled to perform two house blessings in Dallas. The remainder of the trip was to have been a family visit. His wife, Ruby, is a nurse. Their 12 year-old daughter has difficulty flying — she’s actually phobic, and one parent needed to be seated with her to reassure her during the flight.

In New York, the family needed a little assistance from the ground crew to help ensure that their daughter was accommodated. While they all had boarding passes, they weren’t given two seats together, thanks to the original cancellation.

Special needs such as theirs often are met on board by a flight attendant asking other passengers to volunteer switching seats. The Boston ground crew assured the family that their need would be taken care of by the New York crew — but even though the family was allowed to board early, they didn’t get the assistance they needed.

What happened next is the stuff of movies. Since the family was on board early and very polite, they didn’t simply take seats. Instead, they asked for assistance from the crew. The flight attendant instead demanded that the family ground-check their carry-ons — including a live lobster — and stand out of the way.

The Villaluzes were confused, because they’d arrived from Boston on a smaller plane with their bags in the overhead bins. It makes no sense that passengers boarding early were being told to check their bags — but a lot doesn’t make sense at this point.

Total Breakdown

The father, the pastor, asked to speak with a manager, and one Brady S. approached. Rather than helping the family, Brady S. insisted on getting their bags checked. When the minister complained about his demeanor, Brady S. escorted the family off the plane and told them to he’d deal with them after the flight left.

The daughter began to sob. The father, already humiliated, sobbed too. The plane left without the family — but with its gate-checked luggage, including the lobster.

The father tracked down a policeman to be present as a witness when he had his next encounter with Brady S., but after the facts were laid out, the cop excused himself from the conversation saying that it was not his jurisdiction and nothing criminal had happened. Nothing.

The family then sought to rebook on American yet again, hoping to exchange the value of their original tickets. Unfortunately, though they found another American flight, the agent told them they could not access it. Brady S. had blacklisted them, making it impossible to fly American and making the value of their tickets inaccessible.

The family was stranded. It was about 8 p.m., and all of their luggage was on a flight to Dallas. They didn’t have much money and had to call family to help them rebook on United for a flight the next morning. Meanwhile, the 12 year-old was in a highly disturbed state. The family had to get a hotel in New Jersey near the Newark airport, which required an expensive cab ride from LaGuardia.

United flight 1993 left Newark at 6:30 a.m., bound for Houston, meaning that the broke, bag-less, and blacklisted family got all of two hours sleep at their hotel. They reached Houston and eventually Dallas that day, but the father missed his house blessings. Naturally, the family is trying to get its money back — and unsurprisingly, American Airlines is doing its best imitation of see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.

Why Did This Happen?

There’s some evidence that American is doing what it can to speed up its boarding and aircraft turnarounds to help ensure that it gets the most productivity from every flight.

The speedup is an effort to improve on-time performance, but the Allied Pilots Association warned about the changes, according to a Bloomberg story: “The airline is directing that some flight plans increase air speeds to near plane limits and on routes expected to hit turbulence, as a means of making sure that crews comply with FAA guidelines on hours worked and avoiding the delays associated with assigning fresh personnel, the union said.”

The article goes on to quote a letter from union President Dan Carey: “‘APA pilots are now reporting that management is manipulating flight plans in order to keep an operation under duress from coming apart at the seams,'” the letter said. “‘These last-minute manipulations are used to make a flight appear legal when in reality it’s not or is, at best, on the ragged edge.'”

You can only wonder if the speedup prevented this family from getting the attention their simple request deserved. If their account of the ordeal is true, it suggests an almost total failure of what CRM should be about: customers and companies’ relationships with them. Moreover, this story suggests just how decrepit the airline business model is, at least for some.

This was not a technology failure — it was caused by a lack of empathy up and down American’s structure, from senior management who wanted faster turnarounds and greater profitability per flight to customer service people whose jobs have been corrupted to serve profits almost to the exclusion of customer service.

An airline focusing on on-time arrivals and departures might be able to say that it has its customers’ best interests in mind, but without attending to all of the other moments of truth involved in making air travel successful, that single focus is ultimately self-defeating.

Denis Pombriant

Denis Pombriant is a well-known CRM industry researcher, strategist, writer and speaker. His new book, You Can't Buy Customer Loyalty, But You Can Earn It, is now available on Amazon. His 2015 book, Solve for the Customer, is also available there. He can be reached at [email protected].

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