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On my recent trip home to Georgia, my European wife was suddenly denied boarding mid-trip. This was due to a form that she was apparently supposed to file 6 years ago, and the U.S. government only noticed now. Thus, we were left with several expensive international tickets for her that went unused. Not wanting to eat the loss, it was time to contact customer service to get a refund or credit. I had the choice between 4-6 hours of wait time or using a “secret” number for the top frequent fliers. Here’s what happened and why it matters for both customers and reps.
Although I’m an American expat in Europe and fly more than many people, my brother is often out of town 2-3 weeks a month on business. Thus, he holds the absolute highest airline status and enjoys countless benefits and free upgrades, even getting driven from the terminal to plane in a Porsche on a few occasions! One of the perks is a special customer service number to call only for the elite flyers who log millions of miles in the air.
Like many companies, the airline I flew is currently suffering from a shortage of customer service agents, surging travel numbers, and a constant need for flexibility due to the many changing regulations and disruptions due to COVID.
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Self-Service Is Out, 4-6 Hour Waits Are In
As someone in the customer service software industry, my first attempt was of course trying self-service to get a refund or credit. Unfortunately, I booked my ticket through a 3rd party travel site, the ticket was for my wife, not me, and she flew the first leg of the trip and not the rest. This complex scenario meant there was nothing remotely relevant in the self-service options, nor was live chat offered. Granted, I couldn’t help but think a series of self-service decision trees could’ve worked magic here and at least gotten me partially through the process before being handed over to an agent.
As the VW global roadside assistance study shows, it may require a lot of effort to map out extremely complex processes for customer support, but the result is nothing short of a miracle, both for customers and agents.
- Customers expect live chat! If you don’t have it, at least make that explicitly clear on the website versus never mentioning it and costing me time searching in vain.
- Self-service should cover the most common issues, but don’t stop there if possible or let everyone start their journey there by creating a ticket I can later refer to on the phone. This would’ve saved me from having to repeat my story a half dozen times.
- No matter how complex customer problems are, they can be mapped and at least partially solved by self-service.
Learn how decisions trees create consistency and transparency in your customer service processes
Tough Decision: Waiting Hours or Getting Immediate Help by a Human?
Next, I called customer service, was immediately notified of the horrific wait times, and hung up (another abandoned call stat!). Luckily, I turned to my brother who can call the secret number for elite flyers. Sitting together, we dialed, and his call was immediately answered by an actual human! Yes, there was no IVR system so complex, unhelpful, and torturous that it bordered on violating the Geneva Conventions.
A friendly woman answered, listened carefully, and immediately began figuring out how to fix the issue. Since any refund or credit is derived from the value of the overall trip (not individual flights), things actually didn’t look good. We’d booked our trip a year in advance and gotten great prices. But since my wife had flown the first leg of the trip from our home to Amsterdam, and then back from Amsterdam a day later, (completely skipping the flight to the U.S. and connection in Atlanta), she technically had 4 unused flights left.
But due to boarding issue, flying back unplanned from Amsterdam the next day was essentially like buying an expensive last-minute ticket. The price difference between that and having done so a year in advance was huge. That meant we’d likely get $50 or so back. Extremely disappointing.
That’s where the story would’ve ended on the standard customer service line (if I’d ever managed to speak with them).
Going the Extra (Sky)Mile
This is where the airline’s elite customer service shines. Because my brother is a long-time and very frequent customer, the agent stopped to brainstorm other options.
Because the heart of the issue was that U.S. Customs & Border Patrol had first approved my wife’s travel, then later retracted it, it was in essence an issue of documents. Formulating a new plan, the rep got to work on a new solution.
Because my wife’s ESTA (travel authorization) was authorized and then withdrawn, the partner airline who we started our journey with should’ve caught that and not let her board the very first flight.
Because reps on this line are focused firstly on solving issues and keeping their best customers happy – not just metrics like AHT, how many calls they answer in a day – she took the time to do what humans do best, truly listening and solving complex problems.
Thus, the partner airline was at fault for not thoroughly double-checking the documents, and my wife was entitled to a full credit. In the end, we got just over $700 back, covering all of the missed flights!
A new Gartner report on why customer service agents are disengaged notes their contradictory goals from management which strikes at the heart of the difference between calling the VIP service line and the public one:
One such contradiction is between performing high-quality work and performing work quickly; for example, staying on the phone to provide a customer with additional value or ending the call quickly to hit average handle time targets.
-“Why Service Reps Disengage and What You Can Do About It” 21 May 2021 ID G00748971
Lessons for Customer Service: Quality Work or Volume?
When we don’t get the answer we want from a customer service rep, many of us simply call back, hoping for another person and repeating the process until we get the resolution desired. The problems with that are many, including:
- Teaching customers that reps cannot be trusted (lower customer trust)
- Customers keep calling back (higher call volume, lower FCR, etc.)
- Adding unnecessary calls and stress for agents (EX)
During this whole ordeal, the contrast between the elite customer service and the standard line was stark. On the one hand, I can appreciate that customers whose lifetime value (CLV) is significantly higher than mine receive better service. It’s a simple cost-benefit analysis. Yet why can’t the standard customer service be higher? Of course, the VIP line has more experienced reps with far more knowledge, but it’s not simply a training issue.
The goals of each department are different. One strives to solve problems and satisfy customers above all. Those are the KPIs. The standard service department is trying to do the same, but with the often-opposing goals of handling high volumes, getting to the next customer, and probably just staying sane in the process.
6 Short Lessons for Contact Centers
- Do not set contradictory goals for agents!
- Don’t stop self-service at the most common issues.
- Map complex problems and implement decision trees for better self-service or easier hand-off to agents
- Invest in more thorough and frequent training for reps
- Practice good knowledge management to improve both self-service and agents
- If you don’t offer live chat, make that clear on your “Contact Us / Support” page. It saves customers time and sets the right expectations.
Finally, I’d like to note that while I’ve chosen not to call out the airline by name, nothing here is meant to give a negative impression. I fly them whenever possible and have had great customer experiences with them over the past two decades.
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Jarrod worked as USU's Product Marketing Manager for Knowledge Management in 2019.