American Airlines

  • September 27, 2016
  • aaIt’s easy to lose sight of people in a CRM discussion by focusing instead on the great technology and what it lets us do under optimum circumstances. But we should always keep the customer in mind for without them what are we? Forgetting the customer is dangerous for both customers and vendors in this social age. Far from being a universal good, automation can make it hard to reach a human being when only a human can help to make sense of reality. It’s dangerous for vendors too because when that happens you get unhappy customers who have the ability to exact revenge in the most public forums.

    United Breaks Guitars (UBG), the song, the book, and the YouTube series, provides a graphic example of how things can go bad and how some organizations are culturally misaligned with the era of customers. For the uninitiated, UBG chronicles a months long saga of one customer trying to get the airline to repair a guitar badly damaged in transit by baggage handlers—all to little avail. The customer, Dave Carroll shredded United’s reputation by writing songs about the incident, which were recorded on the way to going viral on YouTube. UBG might be the poster child for what not to do and how important it is to adapt to the customer era but it is not the only example.

    I recently became aware of another incident involving an airline in which CRM, the attitude and approach to business, if not the technology, were completely lacking. The Villaluz family of three, Americans of Filipino extraction, wanted to fly from Boston to Dallas on American Airlines in July and through a series of missteps instead ended up broke, baggage-less, and blacklisted in New York’s LaGuardia airport.

    The original flight from Boston, American 2607, was delayed and ultimately canceled after about six hours. Passengers were given the option of taking AA 2172 Boston to LaGuardia for a connection to Dallas AA 1144 leaving at 7:59 PM. They were also given food vouchers by the airline.

    This family is not wealthy though sources tell me they are salt of the earth types, always volunteering and giving to their church and to the community. Their trip was part vacation and part work. The father, Ken Villaluz is a pastor and was scheduled to perform two house blessings in Dallas and the remainder of the trip was scheduled as a family visit. The wife Ruby is a nurse and the 12 year-old daughter does not like flying, she’s actually phobic, and one parent needed to be seated with the daughter.

    In New York, the family needed a little assistance from the ground crew to help ensure that their daughter was accommodated because while they all had boarding passes, no two seats were together thanks to the original cancellation. This is something that’s often taken care of onboard by a flight attendant asking other passengers if they’d mind switching seats. The Boston ground crew assured the family that their need would be taken care of by the New York crew but that didn’t happen though the family was allowed to board early.

    What happened next is the stuff the make movies about. Since the family was onboard early and very polite, they didn’t simply take seats expecting to deal with the ramifications as the plane filled. Instead they asked for assistance from the crew. The flight attendant instead told the family to ground check their bags (including a live lobster) and stand out of the way. They were confused because they’d arrived from Boston on a smaller plane with their bags in the overhead bins. It makes no sense that they were boarding early and were already being told to check their bags but a lot doesn’t make sense at this point.

    The father, the pastor, asked to speak with a manager and one Brady S. approached. But rather than helping, Brady S. only wanted to get their bags checked. When the minister complained about Brady S.’s demeanor, he escorted the family off the plane and told them to wait and that he’d deal with them once the plane had gone. The daughter began to sob, the father already humiliated, sobbed too. The plane left without the family but with its gate-checked luggage including the lobster.

    The father tracked down a policeman to be present as a witness when he had his next encounter with Brady S. but after the facts were laid out, the cop excused himself from the conversation saying that it was not his jurisdiction and nothing criminal had happened. Nothing.

    The family then sought to rebook on American yet again hoping to exchange the value of their original tickets. Unfortunately, though they found another American flight, the agent told them they could not access it. Brady S. had blacklisted them making it impossible to fly American. Now the value of their tickets was inaccessible.

    So family was now stranded, it was about 8 PM and all of their luggage was on a flight to Dallas. They didn’t have much money and had to call family in Dallas to help them rebook on United for the next morning. Meanwhile the 12 year-old was melting down and the family had to get a hotel in New Jersey near the Newark airport which required an expensive cab ride from LaGuardia. United flight 1993 left Newark at 6:30 AM bound for Houston meaning that the broke, bag-less, and blacklisted family would get all of 2 hours sleep that night. The next day, the family got to Houston and eventually Dallas though the father missed his house blessings. Naturally, the family is trying to get its money back and unsurprisingly, American Airlines is doing its best imitation of see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.

    Why did this happen?

    There’s some evidence that American is doing what it can to speed up its boarding and aircraft turnarounds to help ensure it gets the most productivity from every flight. A story originating on Bloomberg describes the speedup as an effort to improve on-time performance. But The Allied Pilots Association (APA) warned about the changes. According to the Bloomberg article, “The airline is directing that some flight plans increase air speeds to near plane limits and on routes expected to hit turbulence, as a means of making sure that crews comply with FAA guidelines on hours worked and avoiding the delays associated with assigning fresh personnel, the union said.”

    The article goes on to quote a letter from union President Dan Carey that, “’APA pilots are now reporting that management is manipulating flight plans in order to keep an operation under duress from coming apart at the seams,’” the letter said. “’These last-minute manipulations are used to make a flight appear legal when in reality it’s not or is, at best, on the ragged edge.’”

    You can only wonder if the speedup prevented this family from getting the attention their simple request deserved. If all this is true, it suggests an almost total failure of what CRM should be about—customers and our relationships with them. Moreover, this story suggests just how decrepit the airline business model is at least for some. This was not a technology failure, it was caused by a lack of empathy up and down American’s structure from senior management who wanted faster turnarounds and greater profitability per flight, to customer service people whose jobs have been corrupted to serve profits almost to the exclusion of customer service.

    An airline focusing on on-time arrivals and departures might be able to say that it has its customers’ best interests in mind but that single focus, without attending to all of the other moments of truth involved in making air travel successful is ultimately self-defeating.


    Published: 6 years ago

    customer-on-hold2Remember when your mother used to yell up the stairs to get you to turn your music down? Sometimes, in the age before sensitivity awareness, dad would do the yelling and he’d substitute noise for music. Ah, the good old days. Too bad they aren’t here right now yelling at vendors. is the brainchild of James R. Hood a former Washington, D.C. journalist and public affairs guy. It’s website says the org is located in Lake Tahoe, so I’m just guessing that it’s the retirement project for Mr. Hood. At one point before writing that last sentence I thought perhaps retirement project is a bit harsh but then I remembered what I was actually writing about and decided that retirement project might or might not be correct but that the research just published might suggest a person or organization with, shall we say, time on his hands. Incidentally, much the same can be said of me since I took the bait and wrote this. Whatever. did a little project to compare and contrast hold music at some major corporations. That’s right, they called up, got put on hold, which is not hard, and recorded the music and then wrote about it. I write about it because I see it as my duty as a CRM analyst, which is my job and not some dreamed up project, so there.

    That said the analysis is surprisingly insightful but perhaps not all that surprising when you think about it. Hold music is part of product dress, which is a legal term for the accouterments of a brand that are not exactly the brand and that may not be independently branded, trademarked, or copyrighted. The example I have heard is the Coke bottle. I do not believe it is copyrighted or trademarked but it is part of product dress and nobody even thinks of copying it.

    In the long running legal battle involving smartphones and billions of dollars pitting Apple against Samsung, part of Apple’s complaint had been that its competitor used some of the iPhone’s product dress in designing its smartphones. That’s product dress and in my mind, hold music is part of a brand, so choose it carefully.

    Coke vs. Pepsi

    At any rate, let’s look at a few examples, first up is Coke vs. Pepsi. Coke presents itself as the market leader and above the fray by providing classical music. I don’t know what pieces the company plays, it might have been Vivaldi or Hayden or Handel, but the music was mostly strings and soothing. By the way, this is a good time to say what terrible sound quality all of the vendors that I sampled provided. All of the music sounded like it was being played through a washing machine.

    On to Pepsi. This company has positioned itself as the choice of youth since John Sculley was driving marketing but what youth? Pepsi seems to be targeting people who remember the 1960s and ‘70s with a jingle sounding like something Nancy Wilson would do followed by a bad imitation of The Rolling Stones. Talk about covering your bases.

    Home Depot vs. Lowes

    This was interesting. Home Depot uses your attention while on hold to advertise. The clip I heard talked about their gift card, you know, so you can get exactly what you want. That’s what I want for my next birthday. Lowes defaulted to serenity and classical music uninterrupted by a voice. Perhaps the different positioning of the stores reflects blue-collar construction vs. home decorating even though both carry lots and lots of the same merchandise. Personally, I am bombarded with advertising all day and a chance to avoid it makes the choice obvious, at least for me.

    American Airlines vs. United

    Talk about Coke vs. Pepsi, the two legacy carriers’ music sound the same to me. American plays Adele’s hit “Love song” but the sound quality is so bad that whoever is singing sounds like she’s being drowned in that washing machine. United plays something that sounds like a supermarket circa 1970 and both airlines interrupt their music with announcements.

    CVS Health vs. Sears Holdings

    You might be wondering about the validity of this one but lumps them together as big retailers. CVS fills more prescriptions in the U.S. than anybody and Sears is the icon of retail going back well over a century to a time when it sold through a catalog and rural free delivery, the equivalent of the Internet today if you think about it. CVS sounds like electric piano interspersed by soprano sax in some light jazzy riffs reminiscent of Kenny G. Sears sounds like an imitation of Herbie Hancock doing “Watermelon Man” or “Cantaloupe Island.”

    In all cases the hold music sounds like it’s aimed at a middle-aged person like me. That’s no surprise when you think about it. Who else sits on hold calling into a contact center? Gen X-ers and Millennials might also pull out their phones but it’s to surf over to the vendor and make an automated inquiry.

    So what’s this all mean? I think it’s proof of the importance of a multi- or omni-channel strategy in CRM. These vendors have a pretty good idea of who their customers are and the channels they use and that’s Job #1 when you’re trying to figure out what CRM to buy. So this was quite useful research even if initially it seemed fluffy.

    Published: 6 years ago