Everyone in the Pool! Good for Parties But a Muddied Customer Service Design at United Airlines

Summary: “Everyone in the pool” may make for a good summer party, but it’s a lousy design for customer service organizations. Customer service at companies, such as United Airlines and Comcast, used the pooled approach to answer customer email inquiries. While the approach lends the impression of greater efficiency, this approach leads to more rounds of email exchanges, creating customer dissatisfaction, and wasted effort on the part of the company. The failure to recognize the flaws in the design lies in the performance metrics used to measure the organization.

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In the heat of the summer at a party, someone may yell, “Everyone in the Pool!” This makes for crazy fun, and many customer service organizations practice an analogy of the pooled approach, such as Comcast and United Airlines customer service. When a customer emails an inquiry, the inquiry goes into a queue and the first available support agent will answer it. Fine so far. If the customer responds, not to close the issue but to clarify further, correct a misunderstanding, or requesting a more complete answer, what happens? In the pool approach, that customer follow-up goes into the queue to be responded to by the first available support agent, not the agent who answered the first inquiry.

What’s the result? The second agent doesn’t read the whole email thread, which undoubtedly included a bunch of canned, lengthy template responses. Why won’t the second agent read the thread? Because the agents are measured on the number of emails they handle in a day. Reading the thread would hurt that metric.

What’s the result? The second agent’s email will be ill-informed since he/she doesn’t take the time to understand the full picture. The customer will now be shaking his head because rather than getting clarity, he now needs to educate a second agent on the situation in a third email. Frustration and aggravation ensues. This third email will start getting a bit curt if not rude from the exasperation.

What’s the result? You guessed it. Yet another agent will respond to this third email further muddying the waters.

What’s the result? The customer just gives up or gets so outraged that he writes a letter to the CEO, hoping it gets handed to some intelligent person in the “executive service department” who will work the issue to its conclusion.

You might think I work in customer service organizations. I don’t, though I did work in Digital’s field service organization and I do consult into customer service organizations for customer satisfaction surveys. My knowledge of the pooled service model described above has come from two truly frustrating experiences dealing with Comcast’s customer service and United Airlines customer service. Brief descriptions follow.

United Airlines Customer Service Situation

I bought a ticket on United for a flight to Singapore. The agent informed me of upgrade options on each segment for United’s Economy Plus. I bit — and bought. I got separate email receipts for the ticket and for each upgrade. An hour later I got two more email receipts that turned out to be for upgrades on someone else’s tickets! Clearly, the reservation system (or agent) screwed up and put my credit card number on these upgrade purchases.

I called the reservation line to get an explanation of all this bundle of odd receipts. By questioning me, the agent surmised that these were incorrect charges. Here’s the process I was told to follow. Call your credit card company and challenge the charges. The credit card company would then work with United’s refund department.

Huh? Have you ever encountered a company that couldn’t just issue a refund, but told you to challenge the charges? Why was the work assigned to me to correct their mistake? As a professor of operations management, this goes into my hall of fame of bizarre business processes. I asked for contact information for the refund department so I could contact them, and I was given their email address. I challenged the charges and then forwarded the two incorrect receipts to refund@united.com, including the dispute number given me by Citi.

I was thrown into the pool. The first email I got from refund@united.com declined my refund request! The ticket was bought; no refunds allowed! The agent actually gave me the passenger’s name, which violated that person’s privacy. I responded. The response I got clearly indicated the second agent had not read the thread. I responded. Same thing again. After a week, they say they have honored the first refund request, but I never got any response regarding the second refund request despite repeated requests.  Further, I got another email about my first refund request now saying it would be disallowed!  The disorganization is unfathomable.

In the interim, I wrote to the CEO, Glenn Tilton. As of this writing, it’s one week since my letter arrived at the CEO’s office. If I have to, I’ll contact my Attorney General’s office (though I voted for Scott Brown against Martha Coakley).

Ironically, I was about to switch my primary airline to United since I am now flying to Asia several times a year, which is on United’s route map. Nice re-introduction to the airline!

Addendum, February 19, 2010

It took almost 2 weeks to get a response from a customer relations person. This person told me that I could best be served by one of the “specialists” in the refund department. So, after dealing with incompetent people in the refund department and writing to the CEO to get to someone with a modicum of intelligence — and providing free consulting about their service delivery design — I am shuffled back to the incompetent refund department!

I finally got a communication about the second refund request, but it was via my credit card company. United was challenging my challenge. Essentially, United is accusing me of trying to defraud them, when the problem is entirely a result of a failure in their reservation system. From a customer experience management standpoint, this is the worse interaction I believe I have ever had. From a service recovery standpoint, United has failed on all accounts. I have zero confidence that any future issue will be handled to my satisfaction. They just don’t get it.  United clearly qualifies for the Customer Service Hall of Shame.

Addendum March 9, 2010

I finally got a customer relations who actually read what I wrote. I’ve been told I will get my refund. I even got a call from the refund department apologizing.

Now here’s the ultimate irony. I had to postpone my trip. I asked about the refund for the seat upgrades from the agent. I learned that I never should have been charged for them since I am a Star Alliance Gold member.  So, now… I get to try to get those refunds.

All this for a better seat!

Comcast Customer Service Situation

My wife and I own a Maine oceanfront rental property in the village of Cundy’s Harbor in the quaint coastal town of Harpswell. Thus, we have two Comcast service accounts, one for our primary residence in Massachusetts and the other in Maine. Before Comcast “upgraded” their website in late 2009, I could access both accounts once I logged in. My main page had a drop down box where I could toggle to the second account. That functionality was removed. I had signed up for paperless delivery. So, I am not getting the bills for the Maine house account.

I have used the chat sessions. The analyst just closed out the chat session.

I have called Comcast tech support. I was told there were errors in the website being worked on. Of course, that implies some broken link or coding bug, not a flagrant design and testing error. That explanation would satisfy some people, but not those of us with some knowledge of system design.

I have tried an email inquiry where I went through three frustrating rounds of email exchanges. My last email never was responded to. What choice did I have but to write to Brian Roberts, CEO of Comcast in the hopes that my issue would get worked? I’m still awaiting their answer. As of this writing, it’s over one week since my letter arrived at the CEO’s office. I guess my state’s consumer affairs office is my next stop.

Addendum February 19, 2010

To my pleasant surprise — and in contrast to United — I was called, yes, called,  by a competent person who took responsibility for getting me the information I needed. I wasn’t thrilled with the answer, but I got an answer!

Why would customer service organizations use the pooled service design? It’s simple; the design seems efficient. Having the original service agent handle a customer issue from start to finish could lead to delayed response and could lead to overburdening some agents for a short time while others have lower work load. With a large enough scale of operations, this probably wouldn’t happen. However, it’s a known issue that specialization in queues can lead to under utilization of staff. I will wager that both Comcast and United look at utilization statistics and also the number of inquiries handled per agent per day or week.

What’s the proper set of performance metric? They should look at the total clock time to resolve a unique customer inquiry as well as the number of rounds of exchanges needed. I am certain that the pooled approach leads to more rounds of exchanges. If they did some research, I will wager that they would find that customer dissatisfaction grows with each round of (incompetent) email exchanges. First call resolution (FCR) is the holy grail for tech support organizations since they’ve recognized it leads to both efficiency and effectiveness gains. Why don’t Comcast and United know this?

The above are internal efficiency metrics. How about external customer satisfaction metrics? Yes, I got a request to take a United customer survey — multiple times, and I took it multiple times — but not by Comcast. Were my United’s survey responses, which you might imagine were horrible, connected to the record of my email exchanges by some customer advocate or through some CRM system? Perhaps, but I doubt it. If anyone from United is reading this, please tell me! If anyone from Comcast is reading this, please call me!

What would be a better service deliver model? Of course, the ultimate from a customer viewpoint is a dedicated account manager. Each time you have an issue, you’d be handled by the same person. In a B2B environment with an ongoing relationship from continuous transactions, account managers make eminent sense. But in a B2C environment, it’s not practical since most of the interactions are one time transactions.

However, there’s a middle ground that both Comcast and United should use. When an agent starts to handle an transaction, he/she owns it for life, perhaps even if it’s escalated.  By having the customers’ responses go back to the same agent, the continuity of knowledge will benefit both customer satisfaction and operational efficiency.  In the United situation, I have had multiple agents respond to the same email of mine! Just totally ridiculous and a direct cause of the customer service fiasco that apparently defines United.

The lesson here: Don’t be deluded by the semblance of efficiency that can results from an inadequate set of service performance metrics. Pooled resources lend the impression of high resource utilization. Without the proper set of performance metrics, an organization can really tick off customers AND be inefficient in its resource use.