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Guest article by Roland Rust and Ming-Hui Huang

Those of you who attended the Frontiers in Service Conference in Bergen, Norway may have heard about the problems that my wife, Professor Ming-Hui Huang, and I experienced with United Airlines on our trips to and from Bergen.  I believe that this experience may form the basis for an interesting case discussion in your service marketing classes.  I include below the letter that I sent to United, along with the subsequent communication stream.  (You may wish to present only part of the case at a time.)

Please read the conversation and potential discussion questions afterwards: 


Our Complaint Letter:

July 8, 2016 

Mr. Oscar Muñoz/ CEO
United Airlines
233 S. Wacker Dr.
Chicago, IL  60606

Dear Mr. Muñoz, 

I am a 1K and Million Miler at United (*******) and my wife, Ming-Hui Huang is also a 1K member (*******).  We recently traveled to Bergen, Norway, where I was co-chairing the 25th annual Frontiers in Service Conference (http://www.frontiers2016.no/), a conference I founded, and which is considered the world’s leading annual service research conference.  I am well-known around the world as a service expert.  This is all quite ironic, for reasons I detail below.

Our itinerary was to fly from Washington Dulles to Newark (UA1972) on June 21, and then connect to UA38 to Oslo, arriving on June 22, and then connecting to an SAS flight to Bergen.  Our original flight was 5 hours late leaving DC, which caused us to miss our connection to Oslo.  We were able to be re-booked for UA38 to the next day, but meanwhile we were stuck in Newark airport, with no advice from anyone about where we might stay the night, much less any assistance or offer to pay for anything.  The United Club was closed, and the customer service center had a line a mile long.  We booked a hotel in New York City.  The next morning we checked on our flights, and then spent approximately 4 hours on the phone with United, because the SAS flight from Oslo to Bergen had not been confirmed by SAS.

On the morning of June 23 we arrived in Oslo, but our bags did not.  We had been assured that our bags would be on the next flight to Oslo, which was what we were on, but the bags did not show up.  We were told to file a lost bags report when we got to Bergen.  We went to check in for our SAS flight in Oslo.  I handed the counter attendant my boarding pass.  She then said that my ticket was invalid!  I then went to the United counter, which was unattended.  After about half an hour, the United counter attendant showed up, and hand wrote a ticket number on my boarding pass.  I then took that to the SAS counter, and this time it worked.  We arrived in Bergen, and filed a lost bags report.

On June 24, we spent most of the day on the phone to both United and SAS (often simultaneously), trying to track down our bags.  Ming-Hui’s bags were especially important, because she had to leave the conference early (June 25), to be in Taiwan for an important meeting. 

We spent June 23-24 giving our conference presentations wearing the only clothes we had–casual clothes from our original flight on June 21.  Ming-Hui called United to make sure that her return flights were OK.  They were not.  Her return itinerary had been cancelled by the United agent who re-booked our outbound flights!  After a long time on the phone with the United agent, Ming-Hui was eventually rebooked to a KLM flight.  This was not ideal, because she had spent a large amount of money (more than usual) on air tickets just so she could keep her flights on Star Alliance and get the frequent flyer miles.  After a while, Ming-Hui called United again, just to make sure things were OK (we didn’t trust things at this point).  Again, amazingly, Ming-Hui was told that her reservation from Oslo to Bergen had been canceled!  What’s more, United informed us that there was no way to get Ming-Hui from Bergen to Oslo by air, in time to get to her important meeting in Taiwan.  She was told to take the train (7 hours) from Bergen to Oslo, at her own expense, with heavy bags that she had not anticipated having to carry with an injured wrist, and then be booked on Turkish Airlines to Taipei by way of Istanbul.

The morning of the 25th I spent another 4 hours on the phone with United, because they told us there was a problem with the Turkish Airline reservation.  At first, nobody would talk to me about Ming-Hui’s reservation, because I didn’t have her original itinerary confirmation number.  So I had to take a taxi to the train station, to get her confirmation number while she was in a moving line of people getting on the train.  I then taxied back to the hotel, and got on the phone with United again.  I missed all that morning’s conference sessions, and it was important that I be there, being the conference co-chair.  Eventually someone said that Turkish Airlines would have to sort things out at the airport in Oslo.  They were able to do that, fortunately, and Ming-Hui eventually got to Taiwan.

All told, this was a terrible experience, and I think United Airlines should be ashamed of what it has done to us.  Because this situation is of academic interest as well as personal interest to me, I intend to post this letter, and your response to it, on an international service listserv, as well as various social media sites.  It will be an interesting study in complaint management, and may be useful as a basis for class discussion by service professors worldwide.  If I do not receive a reply from you in the next month, then I will post that information instead, along with my letter.

Sincerely,

Roland T. Rust

Their Reponse:

Dear Professor Rust:

Please forgive us for the delay in responding.  I’m sorry we couldn’t get you and Ms. Huang to your destination on time.  This is definitely not how we wanted your trip for the 25th annual Frontiers in Service Conference to begin.

I can only imagine your frustration as you also encountered baggage delays and difficulties with Ms. Huang’s return reservations that was canceled in error.  I sincerely apologize that you and your wife had to wear causal clothes for the presentation because we failed to deliver our promise.  While some flight delays may be inevitable, the service we provide is completely within our control so there’s no excuse for how your situation was handled.  We should’ve done a better job in taking care of you and your wife.  I regret we missed the mark and did not meet our mutual expectations.  We’re working hard to improve our ability to recover in these situations and provide the customer experience you expect.  I hope your next flight on United is smooth and we get the chance to deliver the great customer service we would like to be known for.

Your feedback is extremely important to us as it helps us improve and the way we do business.  Professor Rust, we’re listening to our customers more than ever as we want to be your airline of choice.  We’ll continue working hard to provide you with better service and recovery when things don’t go right. As a token of our apology, I’ll credit each your account and Ms. Huang’s account with 15,000 goodwill miles.  You’ll see the miles credited to each of your Premier 1K account within a few days.

Thank you for being a Million Mile Premier 1K member and for your support throughout the years.  We look forward to serving you on your next United flight.

Best Regards,

Terry Li

Executive Services, United Airlines
Corporate Customer Care

My response to their response:

Dear Mr./Ms. Li,

Let me get this straight.  My wife, who had her flight canceled against her will by a United agent, and had to take a 7-hour train ride to take the place of the one-hour flight that was canceled, and who had to, as a result, lug two heavy suitcases on a train, with an injured wrist, is not even offered reimbursement of the train ticket???

Please let me know the name, job title, and contact information of the person you report to.

Thank you,

— Roland Rust

Their response to my response to their response:

Dear Professor Rust:

I’m so sorry for upsetting you with my previous response.  It was certainly not my intent. I want to make sure we come to an fair and amicable resolution together. Please respond to this email with the train ticket receipt for consideration.  I hope and want to resolve this without getting my supervisor involved.  If you want to discuss this further by phone, I’m available Monday thru Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 07:00 p.m. Central Time. Let me know what’s a good number and time to reach you if you prefer a call.

I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Best Regards,

Terry Li

Coda

Ms. Li and I had a 30-minute telephone conversation in which she reiterated her apology and asked what kind of compensation would make things right.  I said that at minimum they should reimburse Ming-Hui for her train ticket, and anything more would be at their discretion.  She promised to reimburse the train ticket and said that she would add 30,000 frequent flyer miles to our accounts.  (Given that I have about 3.5 million frequent flyer miles stored up, you can see that that offer will have little effect on me.)  I emphasized that 1) I felt that as a service academic I have a responsibility to represent all customers who don’t complain, and 2) that fixing the processes that underlie service failures is more my goal than being personally compensated.  She agreed that fixing processes was important to do. 

— Roland Rust


With respect to the particular case, I might suggest the following as discussion questions:

1) Is the compensation offer sufficient?

2) Consider Professor Huang’s situation.  Is it OK that she had to purchase a train ticket for a 7-hour train trip, at her own expense, to fill in for the flight reservation that United canceled?

3) Note that the reply comes from “Corporate Customer Care.”  Is that the appropriate level?

4) Should the CEO be insulated from customer contact by customer service offices?

5) Do you think that the fact that the people complaining were conference committee members at the world’s leading annual service conference should make a difference in their response?

6) Should it make any difference that the complainers were members of one of United’s most elite customer designations (1K, which requires 100,000+ flying miles plus a threshold dollar expenditure)?

7) What risk does United take with respect to word-of-mouth, given the identity of the complainers and the academic community to which they belong?

8) What processes and what chain of command should be employed to handle such complaints?

9) Should the CEO be exposed to customers?  If so, how can that be designed in such a way as to not take all of the CEO’s time?

10) How can United measure the financial impact of its complaints and its complaint resolutions?

I also see myself (and all of us in the academic service community) as being representatives for customers in general.  If we are abused as customers, I think we need to respond loudly, because each of us represents many customers who do not complain.  If you feel equally offended by United’s response, I encourage you to contact the United CEO:

Mr. Oscar Muñoz
CEO/ United Airlines
233 S. Wacker Dr.
Chicago, IL  60606

csm_roland-rust_e3a2effe41

Roland Rust
Distinguished University Professor and David Bruce Smith Chair in Marketing
Executive Director, Center for Excellence in Service, University of Maryland
Editor of the International Journal of Research in Marketing (IJRM)

downloadMing-Hui Huang
Distinguished Professor of E-Commerce
Department of Information Management
National Taiwan University 

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