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8 Customer Service Sins to Avoid

In a recent customer service survey, United Airlines came in dead last. Here's why--and how not to suffer the same fate.
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I'm not sure if it's arrogance or ignorance, but United Airlines almost seems proud to be the airline known for the worst customer service in the industry.

In the most recent survey of airline customer service conducted by the American Customer Service Index, United came in dead last. (Jet Blue and Southwest came in first and second, respectively.)

And my own anecdotal and unscientific experience flying United recently confirmed it. But this isn't just another travel rant. Since Inc. is all about teaching businesses how to better serve their clients and customers (while being as profitable as possible), I'd like to use my run-in with the company as a case study in how not to treat customers when business goes awry.

This month, I flew from Newark to Istanbul. To be fair, that leg of the flight was uneventful. The flight home, though was a completely different story.

Mistake #1: Go incommunicado. 

After an initial delay that was no fault of United's, we finally boarded the plane nearly an hour late. Then we sat on the runway. And sat. And sat--with very little air conditioning and no word whatsoever from the captain or crew.

What United should have done: Problems happen. It makes far more sense to inform passengers of what is happening instead of leaving them wondering why they aren't going anywhere.

Mistake #2: Give a lame excuse.

We finally get word from the cockpit. It seems the delay caused the plan to lose its place in the take-off queue. The captain finally gets on the loud speaker to announce that the problem was a "communication issue." Working with the tower in Istanbul, he said, was difficult because communications in Istanbul are a bit backwards.

What United should have done: How about a little honesty? Whatever problems United had were not based on backwards or primative conditions in Istanbul. Instanbul is wired up the Wazoo! Every tiny shop and hole-in-the-wall restaurant seemed to have its own Wi-Fi. By the way, Turkey has one of the fastest growing economies in the world. That isn't the result of primitive communications.

Mistake #3: Ignore your customers' needs. 

We finally get into the take-off queue only to find that the fuel indication gauge isn't working.

After yet another lengthy delay, a repair crew came onto the plane, checked out the problem, and then decided that it wasn't equipped to fix the problem. We were informed that our flight had been cancelled.

What United should have done: In this case, United did the right thing. Safety first! However, the company surely could have made our wait time a little more pleasant by passing out something more than dry pretzels and tiny cups of water.

Mistake #4: Ignore your social media accounts.

All of these communications issues could have been helped if United happened to be paying attention to its social media accounts. Throughout this comedy of errors, I tried to reach the United Twitter team to get some help. As you can see from my posts below (and the fact that there was no response from United), either no one was paying attention or no one had a clue about customer service.

What United should have done: Airlines like JetBlue have thrived in recent years because they embrace social media as a customer service tool. United, are you listening?

Mistake # 5: Fail to send in reinforcements.

After deplaning, we were all sent to pick up our bags and wait for further announcements. As we waited for well over an hour, with absolutely no updates provided, First Class passengers were quietly whisked away to a hotel.

Finally, in a completely disorganized manner, the remaining passengers were directed to three buses heading to three different hotels. Amazingly, there was no record of where anyone was heading. And although my group was assigned to a hotel a mere one kilometer away from the airport, the driver managed to get hopelessly lost.

What United should have done: An airline, or any other business, must have a plan for dealing with crises. There was only one United representative on the ground and he was completely overwhelmed. The disorganization not only angered the passengers, but also made a successful resolution to the problem almost impossible.

Mistake #6: Use automated systems when a human being is required.

After hours of waiting for any word on our flight, we receive an email from United announcing we were booked on a flight. Unfortunately it was our cancelled flight from the day before, set to take off the day before the email arrived.

What they should have done: Don't even get me started.

Mistake #7: Don't offer solutions.

Once we reached out hotel, there was no word from United until late in the night (long after we were asleep), when we were informed that there was no hope for a connecting flight for at least two days. This message offered no specific solution.

What United should have done: Something. Anything. Instead, we were forced to take matters into our own hands and try to book flights back to the U.S. ourselves. No one ever picked up at the local number United provided. We called the the 1-800 number only to be disconnected twice after lengthy conversations. Finally, well after midnight, a snippy, arrogant, and incomprehensible customer service agent announced that my wife and I had been booked on a flight through Munich on the following day. I requested an email confirmation (which, of course, never arrived).

Mistake #8: Fail to go above and beyond to repair relations.

When we arrived at the airport for the flight to Munich, the Lufthansa agent informed me that the United reservations had me flying on Monday and my wife flying on Tuesday. At this point, my wife was in tears and I had sworn never to fly United again.

What United should have done: Obviously, the company should have been competent and attentive. Instead, we were again forced to take matters into our own hands. Back on the 800 number with United, I was informed twice that the problem had been fixed and I should check in with Lufthansa. Twice I checked in and twice I was told... Nein!

Finally, after nearly an hour on the phone, I was told the problem was "really fixed." This time, the nice Fraulein from Lufthansa gave me the thumbs up.

The connecting flight to Munich went smoothly as did the flight to Newark. Finally: quality service and efficiency.

Back before the merger with United, I remember every Continental flight ended with a voiceover thanking me for flying. "We know you have many choices when it comes to flying. Thank you for choosing Continental."

Even something as simple as thanking the customer has been lost on United. Mistakes happen. Awful customer service, though, is never acceptable--whether you operate an airline or any other business.

Last updated: Jul 31, 2012

JON GELBERG | Columnist | Editorial Director, PR News

Jon Gelberg is the editorial director of PR News.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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