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Customer Service -- Not

Cindy Loose

Is it just my perception or am I really hearing more outrage about airlines' customer service, or lack thereof?

I'm also wondering if the trend toward locating call centers in India has anything to do with what appears to be ever growing frustration with reaching someone who can help when trouble arises. I heard an interesting story from a reader last week who needs paper tickets, due to an airline requirement for a particular situation, and she's been repeatedly calling since January to get the tickets. It seems, she said, as if they're reading from a script. Sometimes their answers don't even fit the question, she said. She also says that those answering the phones are not really named Tom and Jane or whatever, but are assigned pseudonyms. Think the airlines are trying to disguise the fact that the customer services reps are a world away?

By Cindy Loose |  March 12, 2007; 3:25 PM ET  | Category:  Airline Industry , Cindy Loose
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I have had better luck with Indian call centers. The people try harder. If you can't understand them, that's your problem. Try getting out more.

Posted by: joe | March 12, 2007 2:43 PM

Absolutely they're trying to hide the fact that their employees are so far away. I called one airline a year or so ago to ask a question and while the lady on the line was "checking something" I started chatting with her. Recognizing a very strong Indian accent, I asked if she was in India. She replied, "No, I'm in Oklahoma." I'm from Arkansas and said "Oh! How nice, I'm originally from Arkansas!" Her response? "Where's Arkansas?"

Posted by: Soletti | March 12, 2007 2:45 PM

All businesses do this, not just the airlines. Watch any one of the many news reports on this subject (60 Minutes, Tom Friedman's reports for Discovery/Times channel, etc) and you will learn that the call center employees all adopt "American sounding" names. I don't particularly care what your name is as long as you help me. I had no problem arranging my frequent flier trip calling United's Indian center. Got on ANA in biz class for the dates I wanted using UA miles. Very quick and easy. When I wanted to get seat assignments I called back and they put in the request while I was on the phone and gave me my seat info. I thought it was all handled efficiently enough. I will admit though that their accents can be a little thick sometimes so you have to listen carefully. I've had Indian friends, college professors, etc though so it's not hard for me to understand. But some one without that experience might have more trouble. Then of course there's the xenophobia that rests barely below the surface or even above the surface in much of this country. The companies are all cutting costs wherever they can. If they can pay these Indian folks next to nothing to do this job that's what they will do while trying as hard as they can to get us to use their websites for everything that we possibly can. Unfortunately it's the way the world works these days that finding an actual person to talk to at a company is hard enough, let alone an American person.

Posted by: Glenn | March 12, 2007 2:52 PM

I am not a fan of call centers; often for the language/accent barrier, but also the geography barrier. They may not know, for example, that BWI, Dulles, and National can all be accessed from Washington. An agent familiar with the US may say, "look I can get you back to BWI for $150 less and if you take the train, you can be in Washington in time for your meeting." The foreign call center people can't. My husband once went round and round with someone because they didn't know that LAX and Los Angeles were the same place. In my experience, call centers in other countries also aren't comfortable with slang or alternate word usage. I don't consider myself xenophobic. If I'm calling someone, it means I can't complete the transaction online because the transaction requires more thought, and I want someone to help me through a problem, not read from a script.

One hint: I've discovered with United that if you call during the day in the U.S., you can avoid the call center.

Posted by: marie | March 12, 2007 3:10 PM

So why are we surprised when the airlines have to cut costs on service? Simple economics, everybody.

Would you pay a $10 surcharge for priority call-center service -- and that's on every ticket, regardless of whether you used the call center or not? I think most people would say "no".

Well, you get what you pay for.

Posted by: We all want cheap tickets... | March 12, 2007 3:29 PM

US Airways uses the Phillipines and Mexico. Horrible . . . try to talk to someone in Reno or Phoenix. And let the airlines know you prefer to talk to Americans.

Posted by: RL | March 12, 2007 3:38 PM

I did not have the same experience with United I got the Indian call center during the day. I thought that answering the phone and immediately lying to the caller about your name was awful. If a company literally cannot answer the phone without lying to me I feel you will lie and mislead througout the transaction. Also does this lie not make the assumption that all your customers are either stupid or xenophobic? Really we are calling because something is wrong and I am already frustrated starting out with a lie is absurd. This realy irked me. And yes, not knowing anything about US geography and or US airports was no help during the call but I cannot say that a call center in the US would neccessarily be better in this area.

Posted by: Tessa | March 12, 2007 4:01 PM

We've had terrible uck with Indian call centers. Last year, my wife's father was dying and went into hospice in another state. My wife had purchased a Dell Computer using their financing. She wrote a note about what was happening and wrote a check for two months payment. The next month rolled around and she was still in Washington and I started getting telephone calls about a late computer payment. I called my wife and she called Dell and was just berated by the Indian guy at the call center for not understanding that you cannot make two payments at the same time "...stupid woman...", etc. To make a long story short, I called them, and was, in turn, berated. I wrote to Dell and only received some lame excuse that they cannot and will not accept two months payment at the same kind and denying that the Indian call center had ever mistreated my wife. So, I got into the act and paid it off.

Now, there are two things you need to take from this. First, Dell is a corporation of scumbags and cheat that you ought not do business with. And, secondly, India and their call centers bring to the table all of the male dominance-female subservient garbage that we left behind in the bad old days in this country and the West. Don't do business with companies that outsource and especially don't do business with companies that outsource any sort of customer support. I don't!

Posted by: MikeB | March 12, 2007 4:47 PM

I ran into a problem with a Citicard call center "customer service" rep, also in India, I believe. After answering my initial question, he kept trying to push some feature on me. I repeatedly said no, I wasn't interested, and he would not take no for an answer! I didn't know if he was instructed to be so pushy to all customers, or if it was because I was female. I had to get mean and threaten to cancel my credit card if he didn't stop trying to sell me the service in question, even asked for his supervisor, and it was only then that he finally stopped w/ the sales pitch. I'll never again call after normal business hours.

Posted by: ChrisC | March 12, 2007 4:59 PM

I've worked in the call center industry for years and it is an extremely common practice for agents to use pseudonyms, even in centers located here in the US. This is an absurd and xenophobic post, and displays an ignorance of the topic at hand.

As an earlier poster said, poor customer service in the airline industry (independent of the country from whence it is provided) is generally a direct result of consumer demand for ever-cheaper tickets.

Posted by: MS | March 12, 2007 5:06 PM

During that whole snowstorm mess in Denver, I called United and ended up with "Patrick" in Bangalore when my flight was cancelled. He offered to reroute me to Denver via Charlotte NC. I explained that would not be possible because the DENVER AIRPORT WAS CLOSED. He put me on hold.

Posted by: Snarky | March 12, 2007 5:41 PM

I'd much rather talk to someone in India, Philippines or anywhere to be honest than have to listen to the dreadful scripted whine of a US based call centre!

Posted by: graham stewart | March 12, 2007 6:25 PM

My husband and I got stranded in Atlanta at the beginning of January due to tornadoes, and were told over the customer service phone (the counter is now just a bank of phones!) that Delta did not allow passengers to fly stand-by. Never mind that I was looking at several stand-by lists for other flights listed at the nearby gates. I finally ended up getting into a "Yes, you do" "No, we don't" argument with the woman in India and hung up on her. We walked to our gate (after being told by the one actual person working at the Delta customer service area that the only way to fly standby was to talk to the people on the phone to get them to rebook us) and flew standby. Ugh.

One bright moment in this debacle--the woman working the gate was the best gate agent that we have had in years--she knew how to manage the irate crowd with panache, and she got us on the flight.

Posted by: MRL | March 12, 2007 8:04 PM

Whenever I call up Delta's customer service to check on a reservation, they try to sell me hotels, car rentals, and credit cards. For the most part, to their credit, they do a good job with the actual question I have.

It's not the call center guy's fault, but forcing people like him to push additional products that I don't want (I really don't need a hotel room if I'm flying to the city in a few hours, and I really don't need another credit card) doesn't lead to customer satisfaction.

Posted by: John D | March 13, 2007 9:29 AM

Regarding the script issue: of course they are reading from a script! It's common practice in the tech support field, at least on the front lines, and I'm sure it is here too,

Posted by: Dan | March 13, 2007 12:36 PM

Regarding MikeB's comment...

"their call centers bring to the table all of the male dominance-female subservient garbage that we left behind in the bad old days in this country and the West"

You're living in a dream world if you think this situation no longer exists in the US, so don't blame it on the culture. Blame it on the individual.

Posted by: B'more | March 14, 2007 11:29 AM

Re: Mike B

I agree with B'more -- don't blame it on the culture, blame it on the individual. Also, remember, countries like India and Pakistan have voted women as their leaders years ago -- still not happened in the progressive and "open-minded" United States.

Posted by: Maria | March 14, 2007 1:12 PM

Additionally, don't blame the call center employees. They are in essentially cheap labor for the the multi-millior dollar American corporations who have hired them. I would take issue with United or US Airways for providing poor training -- cutting down on people who are trying hard to make a living is not fair.

Posted by: Maria | March 14, 2007 1:14 PM

My father had a very surreal experience with one of the airline call centers some time ago. He wanted to fly to Bismark, ND. No problem, he was told, they fly there. And the return flight?

"Sorry, we fly TO Bismark, but not FROM Bismark."

"What do you do with the extra planes?"

"What extra planes?"

"All the planes that fly to Bismark, but never fly out again. Do you just let them fill up the ramp, or are they scrapped on arrival?"


Posted by: Mike Brown | March 14, 2007 2:34 PM

Someone above said "Would you pay a $10 surcharge for priority call-center service -- and that's on every ticket, regardless of whether you used the call center or not? I think most people would say "no"."

I would. In fact, I have started -- after years of hiatus -- using a travel agent again for itineraries with any complications. I get an American, in the DC area. And I get good service. I pay $40 service fee extra for the ticket, but it is worth it for me to avoid the nonsense.

Posted by: Jethro | March 14, 2007 2:35 PM

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