Good News/Bad News from United (and other airlines)

| Contact Center/CRM Views and Analysis

Good News/Bad News from United (and other airlines)

There has been some good news on the beleaguered U.S. domestic contact center front, courtesy of United Airlines.

The good news is that the air carrier will be opening 165 seats at its Chicago and Honolulu facilities, reports the Associated Press and carried in BusinessWeek, to handle written (e-mailed/letter mailed) customer commendations and complaints (CC&C): work that had been managed offshore in India. Those positions will, however, be filled internally.

United's spokesperson, Robin Urbanski, explained that the rise of Internet booking means it now makes sense to have reservation agents also handle after-flight calls from customers. She said the new arrangement would be "cost-neutral" versus having the calls answered in India.

She told "'More sophisticated conversations with our guests are much better suited for us to handle instead of a third-party partner. "We clearly have the deep industry expertise to help our guests navigate through their options.'"

The bad news, from this writer's perspective, is that United is ending handling voice CC&Cs. It would stop publishing its customer relations phone number, which will be turned off altogether at the end of April.

Bloomberg reported that once service that ends, United reservations agents will handle complaints. Here's the kicker: the biznews site says United charges a $25 fee to book travel by phone.

No changes are planned at United's third contact center, in Detroit, which will continue to take phone calls (including after-flight responses) from United's largest customers.

United is not alone in its action. The AP/Business Week story said that American and Delta also direct customers towards e-mail/snailmail for complaints and commendations.

Urbanski explained that United is able to respond better to customers who write, since they often include more detail, making it possible to provide a more specific response.

"'We did a lot of research, we looked into it, and people who e-mail or write us are more satisfied with our responses,'" she said.

A clang of skepticism is in order. When someone is ticked off they are more likely to call and yes maybe to scream than to compose an e-mail or letter. Those are the complaints you want to address ASAP to discover and tackle the root causes, reality or perception of it before the matters worsen.

Bad news always spreads faster than good, and on the Internet the rate is warp speed, penetrating social networking sites and impacting corporate reputations and business. An angry airline customer may just decide to change their bookings on the spot, let everyone in their network know about it and suddenly there are a whole lot of seats that have just come open. Can the airlines, given their precarious financial predicaments, risk to have that happen?

United's action is more one death-knell for offshoring. If these very literate agents--India's and other countries' staff come from the middle classes--cannot provide decent service than the cost savings from shipping high value interactions like CC&Cs are no longer worth the customers' aggravation. That is even in comparison with the notoriously bad high school education that many Americans receive, and the often poor reading and writing skills they possess. The ability to understand and relate to others clearly trumps precise grammar and spelling.

I would wish, though, that United (and the other carriers) would keep or reinstate voice lines for CC&Cs, though. There are less expensive alternatives available, such as speech rec with near-realtime analytics to capture and alert others of critical issues, and home-based agents. A friendly voice, even if it is canned, can only help one's travel through the 'Friendly Skies'.

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