Saturday, April 20, 2013

When Saying “Sorry” Becomes Meaningless to Your Customers

I have not written a blog post for a few weeks. I see other bloggers posting weekly. They often just cut and paste, or link to, material that they find relevant and feel their readers might find interesting. I personally have to be inspired to write. I require a topic that gets me, and I hope my readers, excited. Tonight I am sitting at the Pittsburgh Airport, where I have been for over 24 hours. I left Chicago on late Tuesday afternoon for a consulting engagement scheduled for Wednesday. But before I recap my consulting activity I need to vent about my recent experience with American Airlines (AA) – the airline that has remade itself. On their website it says, new planes, new look! Rather than repaint their planes they should have considered improving their customer service processes. In the last 24 hours I have heard either, I am sorry, we are sorry or we apologize from AA so many times it became meaningless.

It began on Tuesday when I arrived at O’Hare airport in Chicago. Upon entering the terminal I immediately noticed extremely long lines in the AA customer service area. I proceeded to the self-check in kiosks and printed my boarding pass. When I arrived at the gate I observed some commotion at the desk and overheard that the AA computers were down. After waiting at the gate well past the original departure time we were told to proceed to another gate. By then the AA staff revealed that the entire AA reservation system was down and they were waiting for the Dallas headquarters to fax paperwork required by the pilots. I can only assume it was their flight plans. In total we waited for at least three hours and were finally boarded only to wait for another hour as they took their time to load luggage, beverages, etc. Yet every cloud does have a silver lining. I know you will find this impossible to believe but AA gave me a bag of nuts for free! That’s right for FREE! I was so overwhelmed with their generosity I was ready to, but didn’t, forgive them for their incompetence. How can a major airline have both their main and back-up reservation systems down at the same time? And why, oh why, did they not have their staff trained to use some sort of manual process? On Wednesday, I received an email from the president of AA apologizing for the inconvenience and, you won’t believe this either, to tell me I was going to be given 5,000 air miles! I became very concerned that AA, the airline that just came out of bankruptcy, was going right back into court to file for bankruptcy if they keep recklessly giving away peanuts and air miles. Eventually I did arrive in Pittsburgh about four hours late. My gracious client host waited until I arrived so that I could join him and his staff for dinner. I thought my travel problems were over.

Early Wednesday morning I had the opportunity to give an overview of Lean Safety to seven managers from an Industrial Distribution Company at their Pittsburgh headquarters. Following the overview I entertained their questions and we then traveled to their local distribution location where I lead them on a safety gemba walk. They, like all safety gemba walk participants, learned to see safety differently. The work performed by their shop floor employees was now viewed in a different way. These leaders now recognized all of the opportunities to make work safer and easier. And by supporting and facilitating the necessary work process changes they would be repaid with reduced injury risks, improved productivity and most importantly the trust of their workforce. It was a rewarding experience for all of us. At the end of the day my contact drove me to the airport where we had a drink and talked about the next steps in the business change process. We finished our conversation, he headed home and I proceeded toward airport security. Almost immediately I received the first of at least ten emails from AA that either cancelled or delayed my flights for the next 24 hours.

The reason for the initial cancelled flight and subsequent changes was a weather system that passed through Chicago dumping three inches of rain which flooded roadways and delayed hundreds of flights. Shortly after the cancellation email I received a second email notifying me that I had been rescheduled for a 6:00 am flight the next morning. Then later that evening after I had checked into an airport hotel I was notified the 6:00 am flight was cancelled and I was moved to a 2:40 pm flight. The 2:40 flight was then delayed until 3:15. The 3:15 flight was then delayed until 4:45. The 4:45 flight was then delayed until 5:15 and then 5:45. By then I was really hopeful. Our plane arrived and everyone at the gate believed we would board and depart for Chicago soon. The two pilots boarded the plane and when I looked out of the terminal window I saw them in the cockpit going through their pre-flight routine. Then a gate announcement notified us that we were only waiting on the flight attendants before we could board and depart. Twenty minutes later we were told we were still waiting on the flight attendants and they were in the airport! Twenty minutes later we were again informed we were waiting on the flight attendants. While the AA gate clerk who had been making the announcements left to go to the plane almost every passenger in the boarding area received a text message, email or phone call telling them the flight was cancelled. When the gate clerk returned she was informed by about 20 people the flight was cancelled. She looked and was surprised and stunned. She immediately started to pass out cards with the AA reservation number on them and we were told to call that number and reschedule our flights. We were not informed why the flight had been cancelled or if we would receive vouchers for a night’s lodging since this was the last scheduled AA flight that night. Since I have Platinum status I called the Platinum help desk number. The reservation clerk informed me that the earliest flight she could get me on was a 4:10 flight the next day – providing me the opportunity to spend another 24 hours at the Pittsburgh airport. I asked if she could book me a flight on another airline. She said she would try United Airlines and put me on hold. I was on hold for at least 20 minutes and when she did return she said she could not get through to United. Since the help desk was unhelpful I said I would help myself. I walked to the Southwest Airlines reservation desk where there was no line and a helpful clerk waiting. I asked if he could get me to Chicago. Yes, we have a 9:15 flight tonight was the answer. I booked the flight and went to find a drink that contained alcohol. While drinking my beer I called AA to ask for a refund for the cancelled flight. The first reservation clerk had computer screen problems and after 10 minutes said she would have to transfer me to another clerk. A few minutes later she said she could not transfer me and I would have to hang up and call back. I did and made the same request plus I asked to talk with a reservation’s supervisor when the refund transaction was completed. I was put on hold for about 15 minutes while the refund was completed. I was then told I would be transferred to the supervisor but was instead disconnected. I took a deep breath and a long drink of beer.

There has to be some learning in this for all of us. The AA staff I interacted with were all good people trying to do a good job. They were frustrated, just like me, at their inability to take care of their customers. I believe, and try to convince all who attend my workshops that the process is the problem – not the people. Management is responsible for a business’s processes and the culture of the business. Obviously, based on the experiences described above, the unclear, poor or non-existent communication processes me and the AA staff experienced are symptoms of poor management. The culture of AA is a reflection of its management just as the brief passing shadow of a plane is the likeness of a plane flying above. I observed frustration, bewilderment, sadness, resignation and acceptance on the faces and in the voices of the AA staff I interacted with. I told most of them I was angry and upset – but not with them. They know their company is in trouble and only management, if they provide the leadership, can convince them and me that AA is a business that cares about its customers. Our trust has been lost and they must earn it back. Not with peanuts and air miles – but with honest, quality, caring customer service.

My next 2-day public Lean Safety workshop will be held in San Antonio in mid-May. It will be sponsored by AME (Association for Manufacturing Excellence) and hosted by M2Global. Contact me or visit the AME website if you would like more information on the event. Stay safe.