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United Airlines Fails at Customer Experience Management

There is a story making the rounds on the internet today about the terrible story of a 10-year-old girl flying United Airlines as an unaccompanied minor not making it to her final destination.

When Phoebe Klebahn made it from San Francisco to Chicago she was supposed to be met by an employee who would then lead her to her connecting flight to Traverse City. There was no one waiting to assist Phoebe when she made it to Chicago. Instead, she began asking for help from nearby employees who informed her they were “too busy.” Attempting to take matters into her own hands she asked to use a phone to call her parents and was told to wait for that instead.

In the meantime, the flight to Traverse City arrived without Phoebe which alerted the camp waiting for her that there was a problem. A few hours after Phoebe initially requested assistance, her parents were finally informed that their daughter wasn’t where she was supposed to be.

Her parents immediately made calls to the United contact centers to attempt to find their child and fix the situation. Unfortunately, they were met time and time again with employees who either were not authorized to help or did not remember that they were speaking to living, breathing human beings who were incredibly concerned for the welfare of their child.

While there are a lot of glaring mistakes that United made in this situation, the easiest fix is the interactions that the Klenbahn family had with United representatives and employees on the phone.

Based on the description of the response the family received it seems like the United employees did not realize that their actions were further adding panic to an already emotionally charged situation. When the Klenbahn family was first informed that their daughter WAS on the flight to Traverse City and they were mistaken, United broke the first rule of customer service (whether or not it’s right or wrong) – The customer is always right. Imagine the fear that entered into this mother’s mind as the camp was telling her “your daughter isn’t here” while United, the company you paid money to look after your child is saying, “she’s not here either. You’re mistaken.”  It took a parent panicking and demanding answers for the simple check to uncover that Phoebe was actually still in Chicago.

When Perry Klenbahn finally was able to get a United representative in Chicago on the phone (while his wife spoke to the misinformed customer service agent elsewhere), the woman he was connected with eventually told him that her shift would be ending and she would be unable to help any more. While this same woman was, in fact, the one who found Phoebe in the airport and connected her with her parents to let them know she was OK, it took Perry asking if she was a mother and then asking what she would do if her child was missing for 45 minutes.

The employee did not feel empowered to go above and beyond the call to resolve the issue. Instead, she was willing to pass the family off to another round of hold music. While it is possible that this woman’s employment contract would not allow her to work a minute of overtime or off the clock and she truly was following protocol, it is unfortunate that in an event such as this, when a child is alone in a large airport and her parents are worried on the other end of the phone that the only response left to an employee might be “I’m sorry, I’m off the clock now. I cannot help you.” This employee was not empowered to fix the situation, no matter how long that may take.

Thankfully, Phoebe was found in the Chicago airport and put on the next flight to Traverse City. Unfortunately, her luggage did not make it which prompted another round of phone calls to United and another round of hold music before being told to call back in the morning. The next day, more phone calls led them to “the most senior person” who said that he could “in no way help” the family locate the bag and get it to the camp.

After more than 2 hours, the family gave up on the baggage claim call center that was unable to do anything to help them. Another phone call to the United Premier customer service number delivered a woman who after some cajoling found the bag and confirmed it would be on the next flight. It was not. It was also not on the flight after that.

The next morning, day 3, found the family asking for the baggage claim number to be confirmed by Traverse City United before sending the camp to the airport to pick up the nonexistent bag. This request was refused until the family explained the entire saga. In this instance, a unified agent desktop which contained the baggage information as well as a database of the customer’s interactions would have been incredibly beneficial. It should not have taken the family explaining the situation over and over for the United employees to respond positively. Instead, United’s representatives should have been able to see the number and nature of the calls the family had already made and understood that the Klenbahn family was a high priority. And using success-based routing should have delivered the Klenbahn calls to the best customer service agents available to mitigate the experience and keep it from getting as bad as it did.

Thankfully, this situation was resolved in that Phoebe made it to camp safely while her luggage eventually followed, but the family is still attempting to get answers from United and they’re still receiving the run around from the company.

In the age of social media it is unacceptable for a company to disregard Customer Experience Management in such a drastic way. David Carroll gave United their first taste of social media with the viral hit “United Breaks Guitars.” They’re in for their second round with this story – a story which could have been prevented with engaged, empowered employees and full view of the customer available to every employee during every interaction.

Post By Liz Harter (70 Posts)

Liz Harter has a degree in English Writing with a minor in Spanish from Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Ind. She is an award winning journalist on the collegiate level with a strong background in journalism. She currently works in PR and is a social media autodidact Google+

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About the Author

Liz Harter has a degree in English Writing with a minor in Spanish from Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Ind. She is an award winning journalist on the collegiate level with a strong background in journalism. She currently works in PR and is a social media autodidact Google+

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