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Customer Service is Still Your Best Marketing Weapon

I’ve traveled all over the country for years for business and personal reasons, and have a Louis-Vuitton sized trunk full of travel nightmare stories as a result, most involving air travel, but not all. I have also had some wonderful experiences, largely due to the people I’ve met or interacted with along the way.

Recently I was traveling for business and collected a huge, whale of a tale to add to my collection. I was going to Chicago for a meeting, landing in our favorite Midwestern hub airport, for just a few hours, and then intended to return home that afternoon, both on, notably enough, United airlines.

Now, as a matter of full disclosure, I have traveled to Chicago on United for years, and have had only a handful of bad experiences, most were minor in nature. I’ve recently had friends and relatives traveling for pleasure take United and experienced horrific treatment, unconscionable delays, poor service and extended travails and battles with management. I can’t count those as part of my story-luggage, but I should have kept them in mind when booking this particular trip.

I boarded at BWI, on time, with no significant incident (beyond being treated like a criminal by TSA, but that’s another story for another day). Flight arrived at O’Hare without incident, but promptly upon hitting the ground, the ordeal began. Apparently, FAA regulations (and I haven’t looked this up), prohibit planes from entering the ramp area if there is any lightning within five miles of the airport. This was news to me, having taxied and deplaned in some horrific storms in the past without incident or mishap, and having been on planes that were struck by lightning. Their feeling was that sitting on the pavement fifty feet away from the building was safe, but not fifty feet closer to the building. Is the pavement different?

After 40 minutes of delay waiting for the lightning to move a little further away, we deplaned and I went on my way to my meeting.

My return flight was scheduled to board at 7:48 PM that same day. At 1:46 PM I get an e-mail from United saying my flight was cancelled, and that I had been re-booked on a flight at 11:48. . . AM the following morning, that connected through Newark airport and would have me arriving at home at approximately 6:30 PM, nearly 20 hours after my initial arrival time! I had no room, no luggage, no anything for an overnight stay, including a charging cable for my phone. No one bothered to call and ask if this booking was satisfactory to me, or even possible!

Rather than try to negotiate this issue through a swiftly expiring mobile device, I called my office and had someone book me on another, available, direct, one-way flight leaving at 9 PM that evening, but landing at DCA, 90 minutes away from my destination airport where my car was parked, at my own expense. I figured I could grab a light-rail train and get to the other airport and pick up my car, and drive home from there – total delay time roughly 5 hours – not a tragedy by any stretch, especially compared to waiting until the next day.

I received a total of 8 e-mail messages from United, alerting me to delays, cancellations and re-bookings as the fluid situation changed, all caused by a little rain in the center of the country. In the end, my original flight had been cancelled and re-booked three times, and my arrival time had extended until 6 PM on Friday, for what was intended to be a quick two hour meeting and return the same afternoon. My one-way flight, when it eventually took off, left at 10:30 PM, got me to DCA at 2AM local time, and left me with an additional 90 minutes of driving to get home, arriving at roughly 4 AM, 23 hours after I had set off on my journey.

The following day, I drove back to BWI to pick up my car, and stopped in to the terminal to try and untangle the thicket of cancellations, re-bookings and ticket changes. The ticket agent I spoke with had no power to take any action to refund or cancel my still existing flight, despite the obvious fact that I clearly wasn’t going to be on the flight from Chicago if I was standing in front of her in Baltimore! She called a supervisor of some sort, who after no less than 6 re-tellings, however inaccurate, of my story, agreed to refund my expense for the half of the original flight I wasn’t going to use. They refused to acknowledge any responsibility for the delay, the need to purchase an additional ticket, or to refund the price of the newly purchased ticket, any meals, or the two hotel rooms I had booked, based on their poor track record of flights actually leaving the airport that day, one of which got used by a colleague trying to do the same thing I was – get out of Chicago! No one seemed the least bit remorseful, apologetic or even willing to recognize that there had been a problem.

Now the marketing moral of the story. If they had treated me like a person, disclosed information about the nature and duration of the problem, asked how I would have liked it handled, admitted that they had not fulfilled their end of the contract, or wanted in any way to treat me like a valued customer, I wouldn’t have written this, and then sent the link around the world, spreading the negative story globally for all potential flyers to see and read. Not only will my experience preclude me from flying on their airline again the foreseeable future, but I will tell this story to anyone who will listen and try and persuade them to do the same. I’m now a REVERSE EVANGELIST for their company, the exact opposite of what their corporate branding and marketing department has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to achieve. All it would have taken was one person from the company to send me a message saying, “we’re sorry you were inconvenienced, call this number and we’ll see what we can do to help you out.” For the lack of that sentiment, a customer, and possibly many others, was lost. For lack of customers, an airline was lost.

Good luck, United.

About David Poulos

Speaker, Consultant and Author David Poulos is known as the Marketing Doctor because of his proven ability to accurately diagnose and prescribe the most effective solutions for successful business growth with absolute surgical precision.

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