The Customer Experience – Rearchitected

Don’t you hate it when family and friends insist on telling you their tales of customer service woes, just because they know you work “in support”? I’m going to pull one of those. Click to the next post if you cannot take another one of those!

My family and I are planning to go to Brazil for (part of) the Soccer World Cup. Lucky us! As we have six people going on the trip, one with a different departure schedule, all leaving from the San Francisco area that has no direct flights to Brazil, and we are traveling to far-flung cities in that vast country, booking the plane reservations has been challenging. (First World problem, I know!)

Since the trip requires segments from multiple airlines, there was no way to book it from a single airline, as is my normal MO, so I thought I would go with a large online travel agency. I won’t say the name here but it starts with a T and rhymes with New York City. All was well, or so I thought. Fast-forward a couple of months and I get an ominous email stating that the reservation had been cancelled and please call immediately. My heart skipped a beat: the carefully-planned trip was off? But I called, and now, six (6!) calls and 5+ hours later, I think we once again have confirmed reservations.

So what did I learn? Pro tip: work with a “real” travel agent if you cannot book from a single airline. You’re welcome. And when it comes to your support organization, here are 10 points to ponder about designing the customer experience.

1. Word automatic emails carefully

That first email, “Flight Not Available”, in big fat type, the one that started the panic and resentment? It turned out that it was a simple schedule change from the airline, which had new flight numbers with slightly different departure times, but it was basically a big nothing. And the reservation was not cancelled at all. So don’t get your customers all worked up with a misleading headline.

2. Avoid spam filters

Adding to the panic when receiving the message is that I found it in the spam folder, two days after it was sent. Now vendors cannot control their customers’ spam filters, but a large consumer-oriented company should have a program in place to minimize delivery issues. (My client Return Path provides such a service, for instance.)

3. Leverage custom self-service options

On my first call, the poor rep (and I in tow) had to wait a full hour on hold with the airline, only to be hanged up on, and another 45 minutes on the second try just to find out that the issue was a schedule change, not some dreaded cancellation. It would have saved everyone a lot of time (and worry) to proactively retrieve the proposed routing from the airline and post on the website for me to peruse and approve. No fuss, no muss, no hour-long holding time.

4. Fix the scratchy hold music

I had to spend a total of over 5 hours on hold as the reps attempted to reach the airline, were hanged up on multiple times, could not find the right code to change the reservation, had to ask their managers for help, etc. And all that time I had to listen to the dreaded hold music loop, with a horrible, scratchy quality, and every two minutes the dashed hope that perhaps, just perhaps, the slight catch at the end of the loop means that hold jail is over.

5.  Create tight support processes with partners

The ridiculous amount of hold time was, for the most part, caused by the poor interface between the travel agency and the actual provider, the airline. Over the course of the six calls I made, I had many opportunities to chat with the customer service agents and most were happy to explain that this particular airline does not have a dedicated number for travel agents so we had to experience the same long hold times as the average passenger. (I do hope that their planes fly better than their service!) Moral of the story: if you depend on partners, make sure that you have integrated processes with them.

6. Pre-plan for special handling

Which brings us to when to deviate from the normal process. The normal process is to keep the customer on the phone and call the airline together so the customer can make choices on the spot if needed. Sounds great. But if the wait is over an hour (as announced by the predictive ACD) and especially if the customer is on call #3, each with long wait times, it seems that the process could be converted to one where the wait can be done without the client on the line, and the agent simply calls the customer back. I was told, repeatedly, that agents are not able to call clients back. What is this madness?

7. Integrate automatic processes and people-based processes

You may wonder about calls #4, 5, and 6. I will spare you the gory details but everything seemed fine after call #4 — except that, not an hour later, I got yet another ominous email message telling me that the (updated) reservation was not valid. I started call #5 in an especially poor mood, only to be informed that there was nothing wrong with the reservation, because, as it turns out, the agent could not see the email I had just received. Lesson: make sure the reps can see everything the customer is seeing.

8. If you offer an escalation process, make sure it works

I asked Agent #5 to connect to a manager. After a long wait, I was told that someone would call me within 4 hours. A week later, I’m still waiting. I also sent an email to the escalation contact listed on the website and have not heard back.

Problems happen, we know this in support. But if the escalation process is not working, then trust is crushed.

9. Don’t worry too much about niceness

Which brings us to call #6. Agents 1 to 4 had been pleasant, kind, sweet even. But they did not solve the problem. Agent #5 basically refused to admit there was a problem — not good. Agent #6 was not particularly nice. Actually, she started by reading me the riot act, that the travel agency is not responsible for airline changes (fair enough) and that I should not expect her to reassign seats on the new reservation (I disagree on that one). But she got the job done. While I much prefer talking with nice folks, please connect me to an efficient person instead, every time.

10. Have a closed-loop process

Last lesson: when bad stuff happens, use the experience to improve for the future. I doubt that our friends at T–city are doing it but you can.

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