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.

TSA Shifting Bottlenecks

The new TSA service design requires removing large electronic items. The goals are to improve the efficacy of the scans and to speed over passenger processing. However, this may not speed up passenger processing due to increased workload at passenger work areas. This is a great example of shifting a bottleneck, and, unfortunately, the lack of attention to all the “workers” and job tasks in the overall process flow.

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…

Making the Case for Service Recovery Strategies — Customer Retention

The goal of service recovery is to identify customers with issues and then to address those issues to the customers’ satisfaction to promote customer retention. However, service recovery doesn’t just happen. It is a systematic business process that must be designed properly and implemented in an organization. Perhaps more importantly, the organizational culture must be supportive of the central tenant of service recovery strategies — that customers are important and their voice has value.

Service Recovery at United Airlines

Summary: Effective service recovery at airlines should be second nature given how much practice they get, but at United, the bromides were plentiful, but meaningful explanations were sorely lacking. This article examines United’s service recovery efforts in the contexts of a service recovery model.

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Service recovery actions intrigue me. What actions do companies take when an upset customer complains? I’ve written elsewhere about the three principles against which the fairness of service recovery acts should be judged:

  • Fair Outcomes: Distributive Justice. The adequacy of any compensation offered for the problem the customer experienced.
  • Fair Processes: Procedural Justice. The policies applied and speed with which the issue was handled.
  • Fair Interactions: Interactional Justice. How you were treated during the process to resolve the problem.

Stephen Tax and Stephen Brown presented these points in their 1998 Sloan Management Review article, “Recovering and Learning from Service Failure.”

There’s no industry that has more practice in service recovery than the airlines, and I guess this disproves the adage that “practice makes perfect”. As a frequent traveler, I enjoy The Middle Seat column in the WSJ. (Okay, I’m partial to it since Scott McCartney, the author of the column used an idea of mine for a column about how TSA has screwed up its Pre-Check security lines.) A recent Middle Seat column focused on the apologies that airlines provide when customers complain.  The gist of the article was:

Airlines say they try to make responses conversational and personal. They aim to apologize and acknowledge the problem, providing more information about the particular situation after research, then offering some compensation as a goodwill gesture, such as some frequent-flier miles.

[Note: the Wall Street Journal is a closed site, but if you search on “Trouble Selling Fliers on the Fast Airport Security Line” and“The Art of the Airline Apology”, you may be able to access the articles.]

By pure happenstance I had 2 complaints awaiting response from United, both from a flight in June to deliver a survey workshop in Dubai. And before you get the idea that I’m a constant complainer, these I believe are the first complaints I’ve filed with United. The responses from United border on comical in their hollowness. Let’s look at them against the benchmark of good service recovery principles.

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My first comment to United was about the brain-dead service design of its brand new service counter in Terminal B at Boston’s Logan airport. My flight to Newark was delayed so that I would miss my overseas connection — not a trivial issue. The physical design of the queues violates basic queuing principles by making it difficult for agents to serve any customers other than the customers in their immediate queue, and the supervisor on duty didn’t compensate for the poor design by shifting workers or customers.

The result was very longer waits for United’s premier customers — and no wait in the other customer queues at the counter. Some agents were standing at their counters doing nothing while a queue built up 25 feet away. A basic service principle is to take special care of your better customers — D’oh — and to build flexibility into the system to accommodate the random arrival pattern of customers. When they designed the physical counter, they should have thought about the implications for wait times the design could cause. Alas, they did not.

But here’s the response I got to my comment pointing the gross shortcomings

Thank you for contacting United Airlines regarding your June 6 experience in Boston.

Our goal is to provide a seamless experience from the moment you book your flight until you arrive safely at your destination. Based on your comments, and the inadequate handling you report we have room to improve. Please be assured we understand your concerns and that your comments have been forwarded to division senior management for internal review and necessary corrective action.

Mr. Van Bennekom, you are a valued MileagePlus Gold member, and we appreciate your business. In recognition of your loyalty, I will gladly add 7,500 goodwill miles to your MileagePlus account. Please visit to verify your mileage balance in five to seven business days.

We appreciate your loyalty and the offer of your expertise.  After all, a great customer deserves a great airline.

A bit over the top, and more importantly, I never got any follow-up from the management at Logan airport about how my concerns were being addressed in their system design. But that response is great compared to the response to my other issue.

On the day of my return flight home from Dubai, I saw that my reservation online was missing a segment — the flight from Dubai to Zurich on Swiss. (The entire itinerary was purchased through United.) So, I confirmed my itinerary with a United phone rep just 8 hours before departure. When I got to the airport to check in, my return itinerary had been cancelled. In my comment to United, I asked in all sincerity how this could happen and what I could do as a customer to make sure it didn’t happen to me in the future.

Here’s the vapid response.

Thank you for contacting United Airlines.

I appreciate your patience and offer my apology for a delayed response to your message.

Please accept our sincerest apologies for the many inconveniences that you endured with your reservation. We truly appreciate you taking the time to point out the issues that you faced as we work hard to correct problems brought to our attention. We understand how disappointing this was for you and we apologize for the factors that contributed to your overall dissatisfaction. Although we can’t explain or undo what you experienced, [my emphasis] we can work to correct it. This situation will be reviewed and addressed internally with our Senior Managers. Your concerns will be taken very seriously.

It is never our intent to inconvenience our most loyal customer, and I am very sorry your valid expectations were not met. Your feedback will help us evaluate what has happened and allow us to make necessary adjustments as it tells us what areas we need to improve on. We appreciate the time you took to share your experience with us and the opportunity to apologize for any inconvenience.

I understand that we can’t undo all that you have experienced but as a gesture of goodwill I will be crediting your account with 7,500 miles. We ask for your patience as it can take up to 14 business days for the miles to be credited to your account.

We at United apologize for the inconvenience and thank you for bringing this to our attention. As a loyal Premier Gold Elite member your business and satisfaction does matter to us.

Interestingly, Scott McCartney’s article says

United said it tries not to go overboard on the apology. “Generally we tell the customer we are sorry they did not have the experience they expected on United,” spokesman Rahsaan Johnson said. “We try to be empathetic to the customer but not sound insincere.”

Apparently, this agent didn’t get the message. I followed up on my key request.

Per my note, I would still like to know *how and why* my reservation was cancelled so that I can take steps as a passenger to make sure it doesn’t happen in the future.

The response to this was an auto respond. How can they not be able to explain how a reservation gets cancelled? It’s a transaction that was initiated by a computer program or an individual action. Just tell me the conditions that led to the action so I can try to identify and compensate for such a mistake in the future.

In fact, I learned that if you reply to an email from United Customer Care, you get this auto respond that has been mail merged with information from your case number.

Thank you again for taking time to let us know about your recent experience with United Airlines.

7500 bonus miles have been added to the MileagePlus account, XXX.

The reference for this item is: YYY

For current information on your MileagePlus balance, as well as information on the latest services available to you as a valued member of MileagePlus, please visit our website at

I did get a response two weeks later from the agent, telling me:

I am still trying to find out the answers to your concerns. Our Tech Support is still looking into the issues.

As I post this update yet another two weeks later, I still have not learned how to become a better customer.

So let’s evaluate these on the 3 requirements of good service recovery.

  • Fair Outcomes: Distributive Justice. The compensation was fine. I really didn’t care about any compensation. But what I really wanted was an explanation of the cancellation issue. (Is that Distributive or Interaction? A bit of both.) I try to be a smart customer and smart traveler. I really wanted to know how to avoid having this happen again in the future. Here’s the black eye for United from me. They haven’t given me any explanation whatsoever. Shame on United for that.
  • Fair Processes: Procedural Justice. Not an issue here.
  • Fair Interactions: Interactional Justice. I came away with the feeling that the replies were perfunctory and my feedback just vanishes into the ether. The replies didn’t instill greater loyalty in me for United. I have a fairly sensitive BS meter from 27 years of teaching, and it was flashing red reading the emails, especially the second one.

I know that United is not unique in hollow service recovery.  But what they’ve taught me is to expect little in the way of a substantive reply.

Fewer bromides. More real explanation.

Employees Strike in Support of a CEO?

Summary: Employees strike against CEOs all the time, but have you ever heard of employees going on strike in support of a CEO? Employees at the Market Basket supermarket chain in greater Boston have done just that in support of Arthur T. Demoulas, and customers are supporting the boycott. This is an odd event.

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Arty TI live in a state — Massachusetts — known for its quirks.  And right now we have a really quirky event transpiring.  A local company’s employees are on strike because of the CEO. What’s odd about that? They’re striking (or boycotting) in support of a fired CEO. And they’re not union employees, so they could all be fired today with little or no legal recourse.

The Market Basket supermarket chain has a long history of intra-family squabbles. The company is owned and run by cousins, grandchildren of the founder.  Such dissension is not uncommon in family businesses where ownership is split through the generations. In mid July the board of directors, controlled by cousins on one side of the family, dismissed the CEO Arthur T. Demoulas. (Arthur S. Demoulas is a cousin on the other side.)

The reaction of the employee base was immediate and strong. Not just store managers, but rank and file employees stopped showing up for work. Food wasn’t getting moved from the warehouse, so the store shelves have become more and more empty, especially of produce. Employees have been collecting petitions outside the stores for weeks on their own time and held mass rallies at the company’s headquarters.

All this because the CEO was fired.

I should add here that this is my preferred supermarket, especially after they opened a store quite near my house.  Before this store opening, I would take advantage of any trip that took me near one of the stores. So, I’m invested in this store surviving, but I’m honoring the employee boycott as is most of the customer base. (Maybe that fact is not so quirky for Massachusetts.) The nearby photo is of a sign outside “my” Market Basket in Hudson, Mass.

Unfortunately, the media has only covered the story that makes good headlines — employees striking for Arthur T, the CEO. The media has not really covered any of the back story. Arthur T.’s side of the family is not exactly wrapped in glory, and we haven’t learned what exactly led to Arthur T.’s dismissal. There are rumors of sweetheart real estate deals by Arthur T. Market Basket is a privately-held company so the financials are not public. The media therefore have to work harder to get all the back story. I guess it’s easier to cover employee rallys then really present the whole story.

But I have talked with the employees outside “my” store. They say that “Arty T.” wasn’t solely focused on profits. He paid employees well and is the driver behind taking lower margins for the products they sell. The “other Arthur” et al. who fired Arty T. want to drive up profit margins by raising prices and probably being less generous with employees.

market-basket-hudsonOf course, maybe Arty’s approach is the real profit maximizing one. Maybe his lower margins have created a hugely loyal customer base, leading to greater volume, and maybe his employee practices mean that customers get a more positive experience, garnering greater loyalty. I recently wrote about a similar story at Hilltop Steakhouse, which went for profits and sunk the company. Maybe if current management gets its way Market Basket will lose its competitive advantage and be less profitable.

The nearby photo is of the entrance to “my” Market Basket. All those slips of paper are register receipts that customers have put up from other supermarkets. Note that store management hasn’t taken them down or driven the employees from the store entrances. Those who run the company in the corporate offices are an island with little to no support from the employee base, including store managers. Corporate management may win the battle, but it may be of a bankrupt company.

As a business school professor, I watch what’s happening in the business community pretty closely. I can never recall a situation quite like this where employees put their jobs on the line like this to support a fired company president or CEO.

I’ve never met Arthur T. Demoulas, but the employees all speak about him in very high terms. He certainly has some leadership skills that are seldom seen in businesses — even if we don’t know the whole story. I guess the good news for him is that should he not get reinstated or successfully buy out his cousins, he could go on the lecture circuit.

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Update: August 28, 2014

The Market Basket board agreed to sell the company to Arthur T. for $1.5 billion. But this is not the end of the story.  How will Arthur T. manage the employees that have backed him so well? He will be hailed as a conquering hero right now. What happens if he has to make a tough decision down the road? At least, I can shop there again. But I’ll wait a week for the likely influx of returning patrons, and I suspect a lot of new shoppers will go there to see what all the hoopla was about.

Update: Early 2015

Chats with cashiers confirm that lots of people who had never shopped at Market Basket came to check it out because of all the news. So, the store is more crowded than before. Drats! I don’t think the whole contentious confrontation what an advertising gimmick, but maybe that’s how it’s worked out.