Airline Customer Loyalty Ain’t for the Dogs

Customer loyalty should not be defined with a short-term view but, rather, looking at the lifetime of interactions. Otherwise, a company risks driving away long-standing customers, as United Airlines almost did.

Open Road Tolling Leads to Hole in Customer Journey Map

Good customer experience management is not a one-time event, but requires reviewing customer journey maps whenever something in a process has changed. The implementation of the lovely new open-road tolling in Massachusetts missed a key part of the customer experience: how to tell the customer when something is amiss with his transponder. And this could be — and should be — proactively pushed to the customer.

Implications of the Federal Agency Customer Experience Act of 2017

Federal Agency Customer Experience Act of 2017 promises to make agencies more responsive to its citizen-customers. But will it? By itself, will the bill’s requirements achieve its goals? Is the feedback program required by the bill properly designed? What elements of the feedback program should be part of a Congressional bill versus assigned to some administrator to determine in conjunction with people who are survey experts? This article will explore those questions. This bill needs to be rethought with input from people who know something about survey programs.

Back to Basics at the TSA — lean operational improvements

TSA lines aren’t as bad as feared, due to the implementation of new process designs and technology. It’s really just back to basics of operational management and Lean philosophy. No earth shattering innovations, just stuff they could have — and should have — done years ago.

TSA Capacity Management Leads to Long Lines

We’ve seen that the head of the VA doesn’t understand service delivery models and now we’re hearing the details that show the TSA doesn’t understand basic process analysis.  This should be a surprise to anyone with any understanding of capacity analysis – it certainly wasn’t to me – but it is astounding that we have people running these critical agencies that appear to lack such basic knowledge of their agencies’ core tasks.  TSA capacity management is just poor.

We all know that the lines at TSA for security checks have gotten long.  TSA wants to tell us that’s because of an increase in passenger traffic.  And various pandering senators – think Ed Markey – think it’s the checked baggage charges.  But now we’ve learned that checked bags have missed their flights — and in large numbers — due to screening holdups.

The Outcome of TSA Capacity Management: Long Lines

The problem is obvious and was well articulated by an American Airlines senior manager testifying before Congress.  The TSA didn’t adjust its staffing model when the protocols for screening baggage changed.


Let’s explain.  We all remember that TSA failed to detect contraband in smuggling tests in over 90% of attempts.  (With such poor efficacy, why even bother to do the screening?)  So, TSA responded by increasing the screening time to make sure bad stuff got flagged.  Any of us who travel could see that screening time was longer for each given bag. (If I wasn’t afraid of being arrested, I would take some hard measurements to quantify the times.)

Capacity is defined as items screened per hour or day, NOT the number of screening lines.  When you lengthen the time to screen a bag, you reduce capacity.


For example, if you double the time to screen, you would need to double the number of screening lines to keep things in balance.  TSA didn’t do that.  In fact, it appears the number of screening lines decreased.

What did they think would happen?  And their solution?  Tell people to show up earlier.  It’s your fault, passengers, for missing your flights!

TSA Recommendations Make Long Lines Even Longer

But as I have argued, having demand (people) arrive earlier does NOT address a demand/capacity imbalance! Here’s what it does do: It makes lines get even longer.  Why?

The recommendation creates a mob mentality.  Since other passengers are going to show up earlier, then I need to show even earlier just to be sure I get through.

The result?

  1. Wicked long lines waiting for security screening, which would be a very tempting soft target for terrorists.
  2. More crowded gate areas with all these people who have arrived wicked early.

As for that new screening system being tried out in Atlanta, is it really attacking the bottleneck, which is the screening time?  I’m dubious it’s all that’s being touted.  It may be an improvement, but my guess is that its impact will be marginal.

As for Senator Markey, please stop pandering.  If you shift more bags to being checked, you’re NOT attacking the bottleneck; we’ll just have more checked bags miss flights.  I know you’re a lawyer, but how about taking an operations management course at one of the nearby Boston business schools.

VA Wait Times are an Important Service Measurement

The head of the US Veterans Affairs, Robert McDonald, demonstrated a phenomenal lack of understanding of the nature of a service product and measurements relevant to those service products when he said that VA wait times was not an important measure.

VA Wait Times in McDonald’s View of Service Measurement

“The days to an appointment [wait time] is really not what we should be measuring. What we should be measuring is the veteran’s satisfaction… When you go to Disney, do they measure the number of hours you wait in line? Or what’s important? What’s important is, what’s your satisfaction with the experience?… And what I would like to move to, eventually, is that kind of measure,” as reported by the Christian Science Monitor at one of its events on May 23, 2016.

Really?  He thinks Disney doesn’t measure wait times?  Of course it does!  Why?  Because wait time is part of the customer experience, it’s part of the product-service bundle they sell to their customers.

McDonald’s bona fides for the VA job was his military background and that he was CEO of Proctor & Gamble.  How can Mr. McDonald run a service operation when he lacks such basic understanding of services?  There are no wait times in the production of Tide.

Let’s put the issue into a context that Mr. McDonald would understand.  Let’s say customers love the cleaning power of Tide, but the box they hate — no carrying handle or it was flimsy and would break into smithereens if it were dropped.  Would Mr. McDonald say, “Yea, but we should focus on the cleaning power of the detergent”?  Of course not.  Look at the whole package, which customers do.

Service Quality Dimensions

A well-accepted academic model of service quality posits that there are five dimensions to service quality:

  • Responsiveness — prompt delivery of service
  • Reliability — delivering service with good outcomes
  • Assurance — having confidence in the service provider
  • Empathy — showing concern for the customer
  • Tangibles — leaving the customer with more knowledge of the situation

People evaluate their overall experience based on all five of these factors.  The core service could be reliable and of high quality. But if you have to wait a long time for it, or you are treated badly, or you lack confidence in the abilities of the service provider, your opinion of the service will be impaired.

Interestingly, Mr. McDonald’s comments about the lack of importance of responsiveness demonstrates a lack of empathy and could probably reduce the assurance veterans will feel about their VA health services.

Professor David Maister has a highly cited Harvard Business Review article on the “Psychology of Waiting Lines.” He discusses in his book ways that the perception of wait times can be managed, but the actually wait times still need to be managed.  Just ask the TSA.

Yes, Mr. McDonald, Disney does measure and manage wait times and wait perception.  And they’re only delivering entertainment.  In your service world of health care delivery, treating wait times that can affect clinical outcomes as unimportant is truly mind boggling.

TSA Blames Passengers for Missed Flights

TSA (US airport security screeners) frequently tell us during busy times to arrive at the airport extra early. Early arrival does NOT increase capacity. If everyone arrives 2 hours early, then you are no more likely to make your plane than if everyone arrives 1 hour early. Arriving early just creates more congestion, but now TSA can turn the blame to you for missing your flight. Airport capacity management is the issue!! If only journalists would ask the right questions…

A Very Short Customer Journey Map

Customer Journey Maps are typically long & involved, but my journey out of American Express’ customer base was very short due to an ill-conceived process. What lessons can we learn about designing customer interaction processes?

What Sprint Could Learn from Cat Litter

Summary: You would probably think that a company who values reduction in customer churn (Sprint) would have lessons for a company for whom churn is an offshoot of the scooping action (Normerica), but in fact the opposite is true. (You just knew from the title that some bad puns were coming.) I was treated far better when raising an issue about the quality of cat litter I’ve bought for a decade than I was in raising an issue about my cell phone contract with Sprint with whom I’ve been a customer for 12 years, spending well in excess of $10,000.

~ ~ ~

I thought that title would get your mind wondering where I was going with this. I had interesting experiences with how two companies in very different businesses dealt with a customer complaint.

I had a two-cell-phone contract with Sprint for years — and I mean years — that had different allotments for Anytime minutes, Night & Weekend minutes, and Mobile to Mobile minutes. My understanding was that all the minutes were shared between the two phones. That’s what I was verbally told. In fact, when I last upgraded my phone and renewed my contract, the written documentation provided me stated that “Minutes are shared.”

I wound up going over my “Anytime” minute allotment one month, which rang up charges at 40 cents per minute. I could tell from the call detail that all the minutes on the second phone on the account were being applied to the Anytime allotment even if the calls were made during nights or weekends.

I then began a four-month quest to get the issue addressed. The first phone agent with whom I spoke agreed with my assessment and filed a trouble ticket with engineering (or something like that). Not surprisingly, I heard nothing.

Rather than go through a long call again, I wrote a letter to Sprint Customer Service outline my diagnosis of the situation. Since I’ve worked in customer support for three decades, I know it’s difficult for a phone agent to do research on the call. And it was faster to write the letter than make another long, arduous phone call. I got an unintelligible voice mail reply from Sprint Customer Service, and when I returned that call, I got an agent who had not seen my letter and new nothing about my case. And I could not get connected to the person who had called since I could not understand her name.

This agent told me I was wrong about my understanding of my contract and tried to upsell me. I’m not a fan of having bait-and-switch being practiced on me. We got into a bit of a heated argument, and I had to get off the phone to avoid being unprofessional.

Back to square one.

I wrote a second letter this time to the office of the president, assuming it would go to a real problem solver. Based upon experiences I had had with companies with whom I had a long-standing relationship, such as Subaru, I thought I would be taken care of. I included the written documentation showing the contract I had with Sprint and all my analysis.

A month later — yes, a full month later — I got a letter that basically thanked me for my patronage but told me I was wrong. The writer never addressed the written documentation of the contract I sent.

Now, does Sprint really think I’m going to keep my custom with them?

  • They change my contract without telling me.
  • They deny they have changed my contract.
  • They tell me I am wrong about the contract despite written documentation, which they convenienlty ignore.
  • They take forever to respond.
  • And they try to upsell me!

Let’s contrast this with Normerica, makers of Simplicity Plus and other cat litter. (I’m really a dog person, but for lifestyle reasons we have cats, which I treat like dogs. Fetch!) As the person who works out of the home, I also get the pleasure of many daily chores, including scooping the litter boxes. (Yes, TMI…) We’ve always bought Simplicity Plus. Great price at Costco and does the job quite well. Or did. I noticed that product from recent boxes put up a cloud of dust when scooping. Not pleasant at all.

I was just going to switch products, but the Simplicity Plus box had contact information on it. In my line of work, that’s an easy invitation to take. What did I have to lose? I wrote a short email on a Sunday, and by 9:30 am on Monday I got a nice reply. They assured me that the quality control issues had been addressed — and they sent me a check refunding my most recent purchase.

And the next box I bought had no dust problem.

While I am sure that Normerica gets fewer complaints than Sprint due to the nature of the product, that should mean that Sprint has built a richer infrastructure to handle customer issues. But from Normerica, I got

  • A quick reply
  • Recognition of my issue
  • A fair resolution

Will I buy more Simplicity Plus? Of course. I wish they carried cell phone network service.

I have read repeatedly that Sprint has made great strides in its customer service. I guess I’m one data point to the contrary. And I just switched to T-Mobile for my cell service. Goodbye Sprint. [In a future article I might write about the very poor initial customer experience I had with T-Mobile. Why? I couldn’t understand the 4 different customer service people with whom I spoke — and I was calling them on my landline. Remember, this is a phone company!]

Normerica has a better, more effective process for addressing customer issues. Far better. For kitty litter.

Go figure.

Mind Your Ps and Qs — Processes & Queues

Summary: Queue management is an essential factor to determining customer satisfaction in a service operation. Normally, bad queue management results “just” in customer inconvenience or annoyance. This article reviews the queue management for the immigration service at Dulles International Airport that is so bad that physical injuries could have resulted.

~ ~ ~

In all service operations, queue management is critical. It affects the customers’ experience as well as the efficient use of resources. Queues can be either virtual, as in a call center, or physical as in supermarket. One would think that it’s easier to manage physical queues since they’re visible. With basic observation, the problems in a queue can readily be seen.

Imagine my disgust at being a participant in two poorly managed queues in one trip, traveling back from Dubai through Washington, DC. In each, some fundamental principles of queue management were violated to the point of criminal negligence at Dulles International Airport. Yes, criminal negligence. I’m not a lawyer, but that’s what I would call it.

airport-queueThe first “bad” queue was the immigration check point leaving (and entering) Dubai. Just like the supermarket, each immigration agent has his own queue. In other words, there was not one line feeding all the agents. The nearby photo shows the extent of the rope queues. When customers judge service, equitable treatment is a key element. With separate queues for each agent, wait times can be very uneven. Agents work at different speeds — boy, do they ever! — and immigration checks of some people take far longer than others. If you are stuck in a slow moving line in this model, you’re stuck. You can watch people in other lines move far faster, as I did. I unknowingly wound up in a queue for processing families, who take longer to process. No indication was made in signage or in verbiage that this was a special queue. But once you’re in it and you realize your mistake, what can you do? Emotionally it’s tough to leave a line in which you’ve “invested” considerable time and go to the end of a longer line. “Line jockeying” is usually a fruitless action.

Worse, some queues fed multiple agents! Those lines moved very quickly, but you couldn’t see the queue dynamics until you were committed to a queue. Then the people managing the queue commit the ultimate sin. When they open a new line, they take the new arrivals, not those who have dutifully been waiting. Go to a Trader Joe’s, and you’ll find when they open a new checkout register, they try to maintain the First Come, First Served (FCFS) prioritization. I thank the cashiers for doing that; it blows their minds.

Dubai passport control could have had one queue with the “snake” that most of us know so well, but they choose not to. Not only does the single snaking queue ensure FCFS equity, but there’s a positive psychological element. Snaked single lines are in constant motion – assuming there are lots of agents working. That movement reduces the perception of waiting time, even if the waiting time would be the same as the one-line-per-agent setup. Perception is everything in customer service. However, the average wait time is less in a snaking queue than in the multiple line queuing system  The excessive wait time for those caught in the wrong line leads to far longer average wait times for the system as a whole.

My strategy when I see the arrangement I saw in Dubai is to choose the line with unused agent stations next to them. Why? If they open a new agent station, I can shift to the new, empty queue. In fact, that worked on my arrival. (And it works at Costco stores, though to be fair I always offer people who have been waiting ahead of me the chance to jump queues. It’s just the Golden Rule…)

These shortcomings in Dubai paled in comparison to the shortcomings I encountered at Dulles International Airport upon return to the US. The immigration area has the preferred single line feeding multiple agents. (Actually, they had 2 separate service areas, one for US passport holders and a second for non-US arrivals.) The failure in Dulles is that the geniuses who designed the system do not seem to understand the arrival pattern of “customers.” While there is some randomness to the arrival pattern here, which is very common in service operations, here there was a predictability.

My 777 from Dubai arrived around 6:15 am, plenty of time for my 8:30 connection — or so I thought. We followed directions from an immigrations person to proceed down the corridor and take the escalator downstairs. The area at the base of the escalators filled very quickly. We weren’t moving forward at all and people kept coming down the escalator.

Here was the criminal negligence. What happens when there’s no room for people at the base of the escalator? Remember, many of us had luggage, too! Once you’re on the escalator, you’re committed to it, and no emergency stop buttons were obvious. The result could have been serious physical injury as people piled onto each other coming — or falling — off the escalator. I say “could have been” only because a few of us — despite our sleep-deprived state after a 14-hour flight — saw what was happening and started yelling at people to NOT take the escalator but to take the stairs, and we asked people who were in roughly a single line in a wide corridor to move forward to make room. (They couldn’t see what was happening behind them.)

Where were the immigration or airport personnel to manage the dynamics of the queue? I don’t know, but doesn’t the airport — or someone — have a responsibility to monitor the process and to prevent personal injury that could result from passengers following instructions? I cannot marshal strong enough words for the incompetence of those in charge of this operation, both designers and controllers. How could no one be responsible to monitor the state of the queue system around the base of the escalators?

Notice I said that the line was barely moving. I mean barely moving. It was 20 to 30 minutes at least before we finally got into the main hall for immigration. There we entered a snaking queue — but slowly. It took 10 minutes for us to turn the first corner in the snake. Now get this. I counted 11 — that’s eleven! — rows in the queue. Do the math. At that rate, it would take almost 2 hours to get through immigration, and I’m not including the time to just to get into the hall. Yes, I’m enough of a geek to calculate these things. But I saw a great final exam question for one of my operations management classes.

I counted roughly 25 people per row, which means the immigration hall was designed to hold just under 300 people. (Here I am discussing only the queue for US passport holders.) That also means that they were processing about 25 people in 10 minutes.

We couldn’t see how many immigration agents were working from where we stood, but it was readily apparent that more staff came online at 7 am. Suddenly, we started to turn a corner every 4 minutes. Either staff was doubled or someone told the agents to pick up the pace (which I doubt). I made my flight with a little time to spare, but I suspect others missed their connections.

I mentioned negligence. Here’s why. One of the responsibilities of a queuing system designer is to make sure there’s enough room to hold everyone — or everything — in queue. Imagine a supermarket that didn’t have enough room in front the checkout registers for patrons with their carriages or a gas station with cars queued up into the street.

I would estimate there were 400 to 500 people in the queue around 6:30 in the morning, 300 in the hall and at least 100 in queue outside the hall. The physical system could not hold that many people, which is why there was almost the pile ups at the end of those escalators. Since the physical design had shortcomings, those with operational control responsibilities should have monitored the queue and blocked off the escalators.

But if you think of the nature of this queuing, the incompetence is even more glaring. In most service systems, how many people arrive is unknown. With good data collection, the pattern can be estimated, but there will be some randomness to the queue length. Queuing models can help predict queue length.

Here, the number of passengers arriving at immigration is known! Without being too snide, can’t the immigration folks check the incoming flight schedule to see the number of flights and passenger counts? Apparently not. One basic principle of queue management to attack a queue before the queue lengthens. It takes a long time to work down a long queue.

Unfortunately, here the additional staff appears to have gone on duty at 7 am even though three large international flights (I believe) arrive at Dulles between 6 and 7 am.

Let me get really cynical. Next to the immigration agents were little used kiosks for those people who have registered with immigration in the Global Entry program. Is the horrendous service a device to push people to registering? The cost doesn’t bother me, especially compared to the “cost” of the long queues, but I value my privacy too much to want my fingerprints on file.

I do know the easiest way to fix this problem. Have our congressional representatives abandon their chauffeured private military transportation on overseas junkets and make them use Dulles immigration. The problem would be gone in a matter of days.

How many of you service managers reading this commit some of these queuing mistakes? Are your queues equitable? Are wait times too long? Do you have enough of a holding pen for people queuing up? Do you staff in anticipation of demand or in response to a demand spike? Do you capture and analyze the data to allow you to make fact-based decisions?

The design issues for a physical queue are the same as for a virtual queue, say in a contact center. Because we can’t see the queue doesn’t mean we don’t have to manage it.