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Polite to a Fault

Cindy Loose

After spending 25 minutes waiting for a real live person to answer at United Reservations, I got an agent who promptly assigned me a seat, as I'd requested. Then, obviously speaking from a required script, he asked if he had met my expections for "exceptional service."

In truth, I was still irritated at having waited so long to get an agent, but it's not the poor agent's fault, so why tempt me to rant at him? He must already be embarrassed at having to fish for compliments and ask such a stupid question. I mean, all I wanted was a seat for the flight I'd paid for--is there any way for him to do that in an exceptional manner? Is someone listening and basing his pay on the customer responses? Should I say, "Yes, you were fantastic. They ought to make you president of the company"?

Can we give United a better way to end the calls? I'll nominate: "Sorry for keeping you on hold so long; we're hiring more agents next week so that won't happen anymore. Thanks for your patience."

By Cindy Loose |  March 27, 2007; 9:38 AM ET  | Category:  Airline Industry , Cindy Loose
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If you'd answered "no", bet there would have been a pointy haired boss telling the United Agent it was their fault for making you wait for 20 minutes (and the pointy haired boss came up with the 20 minute wait).

Posted by: dilbert | March 27, 2007 10:00 AM

Ah, United - I could complain about their Customer Service department all day. About 1-1/2 years ago they canceled my flight to San Jose, Costa Rica but neglected to notify me (they had home, business, cell number and a valid email address). Twice in the past 12 months they've been unable to process my boss' credit card. The very nice, poorly trained folks at the overseas call centers have been of absolutely no use. We've instructed staff to avoid United unless there's no other choice due to the abysmal customer service.

Posted by: Karen | March 27, 2007 10:11 AM

United would be hard pressed to be even worse than USAirways' overseas call center agents. If I can't get someone in the US, I don't bother.

Posted by: RL | March 27, 2007 10:23 AM

Your reply should have been: "My expectations for United Airlines are so low that any customer service is exceptional."

UAL rates 3 barf bags on my scale of customer service.

Posted by: Butthead | March 27, 2007 10:29 AM

Why couldn't you choose a seat with the website--that is the reason for the website and the lack of personnel I assume?
(I am being devil's advocate, but if takss that can be done online were always done online, maybe the phone could be freed up for other uses)

Posted by: Just wondering | March 27, 2007 11:33 AM

Sheesh, it's just a business catch phrase designed to sound different. They are not fishing for compliments, but it sounds nicer than "we done here?"

Who worries about these things? And who worries about getting their seat assignment ahead of time? What a waste of the customer service department's time. They should have given you a fake seat, like 900Z, for you to ponder. Get soem professional help, lady. You remind me of the scary people I met in the Southwest line who explained to me the strategy of obsessively checking in on line the exact second you are first able to to ensure that you get in the A line.

Butthead, your post was hysterical.

Posted by: joe | March 27, 2007 12:12 PM

I must admit, Iwasn't thrilled w/ my experience w/ United's client service. I'd booked seats on line, and I was supposed to get mile. (Caveat, I'm new to all these "miles" things.) Well, the first person I talked to said that it was only for domestic flights, and I asked her where on the web site it said that. (I wasn't being snide, I really wanted to know.) She just kept saying that it was for domestic flights, and that was that. When I asked to speak to a supervisor, she gave me another number to call. When I called that number, I got the suspicion -and it was solely based on the operator's accent - that I had reached India. She said that the other person should have helped me, and that the credits were for domestic flights. She kept apologizing, she must have apologized four times, and I told her to stop apologizing, that I was JUST interested in where it said that I'd only get points for checking in on domestic flights. Seriously, I just wanted to know where it was on the web site. I wasn't trying to be a difficult flier, or pull anything off. She finally just gave me the miles for the inconvenience. I'm STILL wondering where it says it on the web site.

Posted by: Alice | March 27, 2007 12:19 PM

Untied says it all. Anyone who willingly flies this carrier deserves their "customer service" from the guy in India on the phone, to the glacially paced ticket agents at check in, to the snippy gate agents, and the cabin crew, be they just surly, or the kind that hide behind the galley curtain as much as possible.

Posted by: no UA | March 27, 2007 12:20 PM

"Please let us know that we have provided exceptional service" is a technique to introduce cognitive dissonance in the unsuspecting customer. Organizations that provide truly outstanding customer service are ingrained to ask if there's anything that could be improved, and genuinely want to know the answer so they can pass it up the chain of command. When an organization like United asks the same question, and you don't say anything, you tend to think, gosh, they really wanted to provide excellent service, I'm glad they tried so hard. United is taking advantage of your politeness to smother the other voice in your head screaming that you've NEVER received good service from United. Ever.

It's a dirty trick that abuses the human desire to be nice to other people, and I resent it deeply. United (and many other companies) deliberately provide service as just above the level that would cause a riot and the entire destruction of United headquarters brick by brick, a la the Bastille, and then hides behind the guy on the phone who is innocent in the whole thing. For shame.

My personal example of United customer service abuse came a few months ago when I was on a delayed flight through DEN and missed my connection. I called customer service to rebook and the guy eventually started asking me what time I had arrived at the airport. It finally dawned on me that he was accusing me of arriving late deliberately. I told him, "You know when I arrived, it was on your airplane!" What an idiot.


Posted by: Walter Nissen | March 27, 2007 12:26 PM

I've had United gate agents try to order me to check my CPAP direct violation of FAA regulations which say that medical devices do not count as carry-on luggage. I've had United agents misquote FAA regulations to me. I've had United pilots issue thinly veiled threats when I stood up for my rights and demanded to keep my CPAP with me in the cabin.

UAL serves a useful function: they are an example of how an airline should not be run. Problem is, UAL is only one of several bad examples, including Northworst, and Delta, aka, Indifferent Airlines.

Contrast the so-called customer service of these airlines with the level of service provided by the late FlyI.

Just as bad money drives out good money, bad airlines can drive out the good.

Posted by: Butthead | March 27, 2007 2:23 PM

to answer the question about on-line seat selection, UA has the terrible policy of only allowing a small number of seats to be reserved on-line. If you aren't one of the lucky few, you either have to wait for 1-2 hours at check-in (ie can't do kiosk) or you can get a paper that says "not a boarding pass" from the kiosk and try your luck getting through TSA. Then after you get to your gate, you have to stand and wait until a gate agent decides to show up to assign seats.

I am flying IAD-LAX later this week and i'm seatless...I spent no less than an hour on the phone with India last week trying to get a seat so I can check in online or at a kiosk. No luck. In fact, one guy hung up on me!

This is my last time on UA.

Posted by: julie | March 27, 2007 5:11 PM

The word "exceptional" does not have to have a positive connotation. You could have used it otherwise, as in "Yes, exceptionally frustrating."

Posted by: Leila | March 27, 2007 5:13 PM

you know ... i, too, HANG up when i reach someone in India .... they've learned English quite well but their geography of the US is awful .... because of that, you never know where in the US you are being booked! i now use ONLY airport codes but the problem is that sometime i need to know about alternative airports .... the worst part, though, is that the providers of service in India do NOT appear to be empowered to do anything but what is in the official United computer handbook ...

Posted by: pua | March 28, 2007 11:51 AM

WOW! I have assiduously avoided UAL for years, often flying hundreds of miles out of the way in order to arrive at a destination via a different carrier. Apparently, things have only gotten worse. On a side note, beware the last-minute seat-shifting on Air Canada. Having booked and reserved seats six weeks in advance, we were relegated to the "toilet" row at the back of the plane on both the outbound and return flights from LAX to YYZ (Toronto). True customer service seems to be a rare commodity in commercial aviation these days.

Posted by: JB | March 28, 2007 2:29 PM

I'm surprised that Joe thinks passengers can easily get seat assignments when booking United online or that it's silly to worry about seats ahead of time. Does he not know about overbooking and bumping? One can spend futile hours trying to find a way to select seats online, either when redeeming miles or just booking a flight, only to end up calling customer service to get seats. And it IS important to have seating prior to checking in. Twice, I've made the mistake of waiting for a seat assignment until checking in at the airport -- only to find, although I checked in very early, that there was NO seat for me. NEVER fly United (or any other airline which assigns seats in advance) without getting a seat as soon as possible. Overbooking is common and confirmed seating for every leg of a flight is essential.

Posted by: Pat | April 2, 2007 5:16 PM

After reading all those comments and my own experience with United two summers ago, I decided that they must have changed their logo to "Fly the unfriendly skies!"

Two years ago, my wife and I flew in to Dulles from Vienna on Austrian. Although we had flown in business class, our bags were the last ones on the conveyor. By the time we cleared customs, rechecked our bags to Myrtle Beach, got over to the B or C concourse, cleared security again, and bussed out to the terminal, we arrived ten minutes before the last departure. There were no seats. We were denied boarding. The only answer to my question of when is the next flight, was "Please step back from the podium or I'll have to call security."

There was a one and a half hour wait at the "Passenger Assistance Desk" to be wait listed for the next morning's flight. When asked about denied boarding compensation, dinner allowance or overnight accommodations, we were referred to the 800 number. It was busy!

Upon arrival in Myrtle Beach the next day - oh yes, we were given priority stand-by status for the flight - there was no sign of our baggage. We wanted to file a missing baggage report but were told to call the 800 number. After some 65 minutes, I spoke with an agent, listened to numerous keyboard clicks and was told that our bags would arrive later that day on a flight from Chicago.

After returning to the airport, we found that my wife's bag arrived, but mine hadn't. The agent, who was most disinterested, told me to call the 800 number and file a missing baggage report. After a long delay, I was told that since I was at the airport to fill out a missing baggage report there. The agent reluctantly accepted the report, but refused to issue a time or date stamped receipt. A week later and after numerous phone calls to the infamous 800 number, my bag had been located and would be delivered to the Myrtle Beach United counter. They wouldn't even deliver it to Pawley's Island - it was too far!

I recently flew USAirways across the Atlantic with connecting flights both in the US and in Europe, and - despite all we've been lead to believe - they were on time, there were no baggage problems, and both ground and in-flight personnel were far friendlier and more attentive to details than those who "fly the unfriendly skies!"

Posted by: Snnozyb32 | April 2, 2007 6:52 PM

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