The Longest Mile

Self-help is the best help

Today, I am able to do many things without human interaction like order food, pay bills, book tickets etc. From the palm of my hand, I can access the latest information via Google, Siri and Alexa. With the right system in place, we could make ourselves less dependent on other humans. Virtual assistants and robotics process automation are multi-billion-dollar industries today. For the people of Gen Z, reaching out to other humans for help is an antiquated idea and a waste of time. With digitization, brands are redesigning their products and services to help consumers be more self-reliant, especially in industries where talents are either expensive or less prominent. Making the process simple and easy for consumers is the number one priority for corporate leaders.

All of this is great. I am a huge fan of self-help, self-reliance and DIY. Where am I going with this?

On September 23, 2021, I was scheduled to fly out of Charlotte, NC at 5 p.m. EST to Newark, NJ by United Airlines. Until the early afternoon, as per Google, the flights were on time. But, when I reached the airport at 3 p.m. EST, the weather situation changed suddenly due to a thunderstorm in NJ and my flight was cancelled. 

In the past, when I was a high rolling executive, flight cancelations were never a problem. I would just have my admin book a new flight, hotel and move all my meetings to another day. But, now as a Start-up executive with limited resources and no admins, I have to deal with these situations by myself.

The First Mile

My first instinct was to solve the problem myself, so I went online to change the flight. But all flights to NY and NJ airports for the rest of the day were cancelled and there was zero availability of seats for the next day on United. 

The thought of calling customer care gave me the chills because of the ridiculous time and effort it takes to jump through the menus to speak to an agent. One thing that is common among call centers is that they never accept they are understaffed. Instead, you have to empathize with the carefully scripted pre-recorded message, “We are experiencing heavy call volume…use the live chat to speak with our representative at”

At that point, I was ready to try anything and who wouldn’t try using a virtual assistant to avoid speaking to a human. And, so I did. You have to realize that chatbots are designed and programmed by humans. So, if a human at the Gate counter cannot solve the problem, imagine a chatbot! That option quickly failed.

Clearly, there was no easy first step for a customer in crisis!

The dreaded path

At about 8:30 p.m., I called United customer care again. Twenty minutes later, there was a miracle…a human came on the call. I was anxious, emotional and stressed. The United agent empathized with me and calmly collected all the details.

I was hoping the agent would have a plan for me. 

But, NO. 

She gave me the answer straight. There were no flights available for the rest of the evening and the next day. She could book me on a flight the day after. Like anyone in my place hearing those words, I had the same thought flashing through my mind – Don’t I know that from Orbitz? Is this the best support you can provide me? 

I politely asked the agent what about the other carriers and if she could help me find another carrier who could fly me the next day to NJ. Then came the general response. “Why don’t you walk to the other gates of American Airlines and Delta and see if they have availability?”

I took that advice seriously and hiked to the other gate just to get on the Delta counter where the next flight to Newark was leaving in an hour. After standing in line patiently to speak to the agent at the counter for about 40 minutes, I asked the agent if there were any seats that I could purchase then. Her response gave me a lesson on how to treat your customers. The Delta agent plainly mentioned, “Sir, there are seats available for purchase, but we are holding these seats for other Delta customers whose earlier flights are cancelled. You have to go back to United to check other flight options.”

Wow. Delta protects their customers while United ditched me at the gate. 

How am I going to explain all this in the CSAT or NPS survey? 

Customer always find a way out

With all my options exhausted, I gave up and went back to the hotel to sleep it off and hoped that the next day would be better. On the Uber ride back to the hotel, I was pondering what I would have done if I were that United agent on the call with all the flight data in front of me. 

Would I have thought…

  I should ask my supervisor for help.

  Has such an incident happened before to other customers?

  What is United’s policy for stranded travellers?

  What can I do to help this customer get to the destination the next day to take his meetings?

Lightbulb moment.

I googled “nearest airports around Newark” and found Allentown, PA. Allentown is about 80 miles from Newark. Believe it or not, there were a few seats available on all carriers. I booked myself on the AA flight for the next morning to Allentown and the rest is history. 

I realized that even though there is a lot of innovation happening around self- service, digital customer care and virtual assistants, brands need to do more for the customer to be human-centric, personalized and contextual in solving customer problems.

Gradual erosion of human touch is a problem for the customer care industry.

For example, in my experience with United Airlines, the issue rose at 5 p.m. and was resolved at 9 p.m. This experience is stored in phone calls, chat messages and website interactions with United Customer Care that could be analysed for insights.

My mission for in the coming months is to solve for the first mile. I have no issue sharing my future product development plan in this public forum as I believe it is for the customers, like me, out there who are struggling with the first mile in seeking support from travel, banking, retail, insurance, government and other industries. Brands should consider measuring customer satisfaction from the origin of the problem to the point of resolution.

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