A last minute change to the schedule of an event is rarely a good thing; swapping out speakers and shuffling slots is a pain for everyone. But when given the opportunity to have an official from the United Airlines Customer Experience group come in and talk with 200+ frequent fliers about the changes over the past 6 weeks, including the challenges they faced and the troubles they’re still facing with the merger and the PSS integration progress, you accept the pains and make the changes. At this weekend’s Frequent Traveler University event a representative from United’s Customer Experience group stood up in front of the group with pretty much no restrictions on what could be asked. A potentially risky move.
Much of the discussion focused on upgrades and the policies and processes around upgrades. Not particularly surprising given that the upgrade processing has been probably the most visible and, for many passengers, the greatest pain point. Perhaps the best news is that the company knows the system still isn’t working correctly all the time. Among other useful things said:
Upgrades are clearing more reliably, but still not happening all the time
We’re really bad at transparency for upgrades right now.
We’re telling gate agents to "Please don’t police upgrades. If the person is on the list don’t worry about how they got there."
Some people love the companion upgrade policy and some hate it. Some like the Y/B/M-Up policy and some hate it. And, not surprisingly, many don’t understand how the policies are built and how they work. The issue of wait-listed upgrades not being cleared when the award inventory opens up was also brought up again. There are some theories on why it is happening but nothing solid yet. Overall, some hints were offered about how things in the future that are going to be better. But just hints. Nothing confirmed.
There was also a decent amount of discussion about the agents and the seemingly new party line of "we cannot do that in the new system." There are some things that actually cannot be done anymore, but many of the examples provided, such as protecting on a later flight without canceling the existing segments, turned out to actually not be true.
There was the usual (and well deserved) abuse of the Newark station. Nothing to report on anything potentially getting better there, but it was discussed.
There was also a ton of abuse piled on top of the social media strategy, namely the Twitter account. The UA rep was shocked when he asked how many folks in the room used Twitter and saw nearly everyone raise their hand. And based on my personal experience I agree that the approach has been quite passive and low-key, almost to the point of seemingly non-existent unless they’re hosting a chat or similar. Constantly referring customers to the "official" channels which are also horribly back-logged and unresponsive isn’t helping their case. This was, after upgrades, probably the most significant area the group felt the company was failing horribly in.
It wasn’t all questions from the crowd. In some cases it was just comments about how things have run the past 6 weeks and months. Particularly pointed and brutal was a simple line offered up from one attendee:
You’ve broken every rule of customer service since the merger
And all he could do was accept that one; not really much of a leg to stand on to dispute it.
Finally, a few minutes were devoted to discussion of things not entirely related to the post-integration issues. It was quite interesting to hear from someone focused on the Customer Experience part of the organization what about the carrier he thought was compelling for customers and where he actually wanted that experience to be. Things like the route network and the non-flying earning possibilities were big on his radar.
On the route network front, the 787 was a big focus. Among other telling comments,
The 787 is going to be unbelievable…going to be exciting what we’re doing with it and where we’re going with it.
That’s not new but knowing that he’s on the inside and can see more about the potential routes makes me excited, too.
To the point of loyalty and the future of the experience it was interesting to hear discussion of how they want loyalty to be not to the mileage program but actually to the carrier and the in-flight product. They want loyalty to be focused on actually doing right by customers rather than being focused on rules and policies. That came out explicitly in the discussion about the upgrades and not wanting agents to be policing why the upgrade should be processed or not, for example, and it came out explicitly in one of the closing comments offered up:
I want you to be loyal because you know United will use common sense to take care of me.
It is going to take a while to build that level of comfort with many customers. Whether due to issues with agent training on the new platform, inconsistent application of policies or just the typical variances in terms of in-flight crew experiences, it is never going to be perfect. But the company has quite an up-hill battle in front of them on the trust and common sense front. It will be interesting to see how that develops.