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United We Fail: How Big Businesses Can Retain Customers During Points of Conflict


Recently, I had the pleasure of traveling from Boston to Chicago to the 37 Signals “Get Real Conference”. In my heightened state of user-experience awareness following the seminar, I encountered some snags with my return flight that made me realize firsthand the drastic and fundamental challenge that almost all major airlines are still grappling with – making customers loyal by getting the user experience completely right.

Needless to say, my experience with United was vastly different than Jet Blue – we’re very positive on them because they put the customer experience first.

The problems, as I encountered them, are as follows:

1. My flight was postponed due to mechanical failure and the way in which I was notified was by a voicemail from a machine. The message informed me that my flight was “successfully rescheduled” for the following day. The impotence that one feels by having a machine dictate this type of information to them was only heightened by the strange phrasing “rescheduled.”

The Solution? Take the time to have a human being who is feigning some degree of concern call and leave a message. If the flight changes from PM to AM in the database, assume that the traveler has no accommodations and should be provided for. The customer should not be expected to make expensive reservations because of the airline’s issues.

2. When I called United to try and rectify the problem I was routed into circular patterns by their incredibly difficult phone system. Sitting on the windy shores of Lake Michigan, I began screaming “Representative, representative” whereupon another robot asked me if I wanted an agent. I felt like Tom Cruise at the end of Vanilla Sky.

Conversely? Every time I have had to call Jet Blue, I was given the option to speak to a representative in a matter of 2-3 minutes.

3. The agent, though very kind and accommodating, could barely understand the nature of my problem. I’m assuming that she was a member of an offshore call center.

The Solution? Improve the options of the phone system to anticipate issues that are outside of the “business as usual” menu. Personally, I would suggest using call centers in the US because of the ease of communication and recognizable dialect, but I can understand why off-shoring is attractive from a monetary perspective.

4. The twist – the representative told me she could reschedule me from an 8:55 PM to 9:30 PM that same night. Being a bit skeptical, I asked her to verify several times the date and time and it all checked out. When I arrived at the ticket counter around 7:15, I realized that her confirmation had been made in error – that I was destined to depart the following morning. At the ticket counter, the representative confirmed this information, gave me a half-hearted smile and then handed me a voucher for 1 free airport dinner – “maximum value not to exceed $5.”

I won’t even touch on how much a dinner actually costs these days. Instead, I simply told her that the prospect of finding & paying for accommodations did not work for me. The clerk turned around to check with a superior who went to great effort not to acknowledge me, but simply nodded to the clerk the way a pit boss does to a high stakes poker dealer.

The Solution? Pre-empt the ensuing conflict by applying the golden rule – assume that your mistakes should not cost your customers $100+ and a time-consuming hotel search. Why readily hand your customers a voucher only when they demand it? Why not make this the standard?

The following morning, my return flight went off without a hitch and I arrived on time at Logan Airport. Incidentally, a frequent Boston-Chicago flyer from the delayed flight mentioned to me that this type of thing happens very often to her – that she assumes it’s because United overbooks, but that “it’s one of the only airlines that make this trip so routinely.” Maybe, but perhaps not for long.

I hate to sound too judgmental, as if I’m evaluating United by the fact that I my flight had complications, but the reality is that those very moments are when you can gain or lose a loyal customer.

Author Alex Fedorov

Alex is a strategic thinker with a gift for information architecture, known for his ability to wireframe complex workflows and multiple states of applications at the speed of light. He is passionate about clean, data-driven design.

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