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Customer Elimination Management, One More Time

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Here’s one way it goes wrong.

I’m booking travel to a client I visit on a regular basis. Round-trip airfare has been about $450 since I first started working with them. This time, though, Delta.com quotes $1,300 for the same trip, or $900 with one connecting flight.

I call a live human being who confirms the new rate, and, after doing some checking, explains that Delta no longer provides a round-trip rate for this destination unless I stay over a Saturday. Otherwise I’m paying for two one-way tickets.

I figure it’s an oversight. Given the sheer number of routes Delta has to price, it’s easy to imagine the Rates department simply missing this one. So I contact Customer Service (or, more accurately, “Customer Service”) to let them know. They reply:

Thank you for contacting Delta Air Lines.

We do not guarantee fares unless the ticket is purchased. To price our product, we consider market demand, competition and cost. Each market is evaluated independently. Delta.com is designed to offer lower fares to passengers who are able to comply with the conditions for purchase. The fares offered on delta.com are, in most cases, the lowest available fares.

Fares can be complex and are not always related to the distance flown.

It is fairly common practice for some airlines to offer promotional fares to stimulate travel with no consideration for the cost of providing the service. To price our product, we consider market demand, competition and cost. Each market is evaluated independently. We are working hard to control costs to be profitable at lower fare levels and still provide the kind of service which has been a Delta tradition.

We strive to keep fares as competitive as possible without losing money.

Additionally, we are committed to offering the community convenient schedules and a large volume of seats to many destinations.

Again, thank you for writing. We appreciate your selection of Delta and will always welcome the opportunity to be of service.

In my reply I point out that as neither cost nor market demand are likely to have tripled, and as their competitors charge $300 for the same destination (one layover), their explanation makes no sense. I receive no further reply.

While business users aren’t customers (a point made here so often as to be tiresome), too many IT Service Desks have these characteristics in common with the Customer Service departments most businesses run:

  • With every contact, the credibility of the entire organization the Service department represents is on the line.
  • All procedures are rooted in the assumption that the caller is at fault.
  • The Service department is required to admit no mistakes by the rest of the organization, regardless of the issue being reported.
  • Should the issue turn out to be an actual service problem, the Service department’s authority is limited to escalation.
  • Those to whom issues are escalated have every incentive to deny there’s a problem, including a political price for admitting to a mistake.

Which is likely why Delta’s Customer Service department gave me its version of, “It isn’t a bug. It’s a feature.”

Luckily for you, your Service Desk doesn’t have to defend anything as indefensible as airline pricing (more evidence: If demand truly influenced price, aisle and window seats would cost more than center seats).

Here’s the alternative: Inform everyone in IT that from here on in they should assume every issue reported to the Service Desk represents a preventable problem.

Every contact. Until proven otherwise.

A caller doesn’t know how to bold text in MS Office? Preventable through better training. Slow system response? Preventable through better capacity management or performance engineering. Enterprise application doesn’t handle an unusual business situation? Preventable through system designs that allow for exception processing.

Yes, yes, yes, preventable is different from being worth preventing. Some Service Desk contacts are the proverbial five buck problems that don’t justify fifty buck solutions. Which only means some governance group should evaluate the preventable issues to decide which are worth preventing.

One more suggestion: For every reported issue that isn’t a clear “cockpit error,” when those on the receiving end of an escalation close the ticket, give the Service Desk authority to bounce it back if the claimed fix is clearly ridiculous, or to escalate it if it isn’t a fix at all but instead is synonymous with the assignee lacking the authority to address the problem.

Risky? Perhaps. But remember, with every call to the Service Desk, your credibility is on the line.

What could be riskier than that?

Comments (13)

  • Bob,

    Actually, on some airlines, window and aisle seats do cost more, effectively: those which charge a fee for seat selection at the time of purchase.

    Some airlines allow you to either pay for the “privilege” of selecting your seat when you buy the ticket (thus enabling you to get one of the remaining window or aisle seats, at a higher cost), or to wait until travel day and let the computer or a gate agent assign you to whatever’s left (more than likely a middle seat). It’s rather an ingenious way to get a little more for the better seats.

    Likewise, Southwest, for a $10 each way fee, allows you to be among the earliest to board its no-reserved-seating flights, meaning you have a much better shot at a window or aisle seat.

  • The Delta response was several hundred words meaning “take it or leave it.” When there is no penalty for poor performance and there is low pride of one’s work, the response is not surprising. Some of the airlines apparently feel that way. The tough tradeoff is yours. Assuming you bill at a couple of hundred bucks per hour, then the weekend, connection or other less than non-stop flight can quickly become more costly than the non-stop. The only thing (well almost only thing) you have to sell is your time. Treat it as the precious material that it is.

    A similar algorithm could be applied to the help desk model. Is poor service less costly than good service? If yes, then there is a case for poor service.

  • Interesting response: Send him the pricing form letter.
    I travel Boston to Houston all too often. I had a short meeting called at the last minute in September, and the round trip fare on Continental was $1,300 which I got reduced to $900 by taking a one-hop plane change in one direction. This month I reserved the same trip but non-stop in both directions for only $300. Difference: the second trip was reserved more than 2-weeks in advance. Neither had a Saturday night stay.

    There is no excuse for a lack of response from a “Customer Service” department. I have been known to scan the company 10k to find the CEO’s name and try to figure out how to send the same email to that person. Works sometimes. I call this “jump-step escalation.”

  • Your suggestions on treating faults as if they *aren’t* a user error harks back to the QA days when a few companies took the time to analyse ALL faults to determine if they were preventable (and to address the gaps to eliminate recurrence). Most companies have stopped investing in fault elimination instead turning a blind eye to the hard way (fix up broken processes dammit!) and foisting the problem off on lower-cost – sometimes offshore – unengaged service desk staff… On the upside this creates the opportunity for innovative companies – who realise this is no long-term answer – to step in and create excellent processes and then only need to fund minimal but top class service. Capitalism at its best.

  • Bob;

    You lost me a bit at the end of this. You say to treat every call as if it’s a preventable problem. All well and good, but then what?

    You and I have shared a few emails about how technology divorced from human behavior is meaningless.

    I’m not trying to be “snarky”, but exactly what behavior are you driving here?

    I’m hoping everyone knows that Customer Service can and should be more than just the “break-fix” department. It can be the feedback loop that’s so often missing in organizational communication.

    All to often, Customer Service (aka, “the Helpdesk”) is seen as just an entry level point. Nobody sees the Helpdesk as a career objective. Most want to move into another position ASAP.

    And when people move on, what happens next? Why another entry level person is hired, and the customer experience when seeking help remains less than optimal.

    It would be interesting if an organization used Customre Service as part of the partnership of Business Analysts, Developers, Programmers, Project Managers, QA people, etc. They’d probably guide you away from what many users will see as the unacceptable or the incomprehensible.

    I don’t see it happening any time soon. For now, Customer Service will continue to be the Rodney “I don’t get no respect” Dangerfield of the IT organization.

  • Ah Delta. Just did over 60 flights with them. Failure rate ran over 25%. Learned to complain effectively. Wound up with bonus miles, which will cost them 6 flights in the future.

    One thing about automated systems and call centers, if you can learn to play them, they deliver the only solution at their hands. Bonus miles. Must seem like free money to the Delta employees. And this is cheaper than god service?

  • I didnt even get past the ManagementSpeak section before I had to write. These are just too good. They belong in a book. Or better yet, just start a comic strip. Seriously.

    Uhh, promise I’ll read the article later. -DC

  • Interesting case in point. Visit this URL: http://travel.southwest.com/travel/airportDetails.html?airportCode=MDW&cityName=Chicago (or Google “southwest midway” yourself if you don’t trust embedded links). There are 2 terminal maps, one from Google and one a graphic drawing.

    Southwest’s ‘”customer service”‘ swears the two maps match. But although I’m not familiar with Midway, I would swear the graphic is the OLD Midway terminal that was razed some 10 years ago. You would think SWA would know their terminals, but as you say, they are required to admit no mistakes – on ANY issue.

  • What a great response from Delta. It falls in the “I didn’t really read your question, there are more important things to do, so, here read this and be satisfied!!!” What’s the sence in calling a help desk a help desk if they can’t help. However, it’s helped me improve on LISTENING to what my customers are actually saying (rather then assume I know and quickly get the work off my desk.

    I like Dave’s method above, Play the system- it’s all a game. To bad leadership doesn’t take these things seriously!!

    Great Article Bob!!! Thanks for writing your thoughts (and for experiencing with Delta)

  • Mis-aligned metrics. Tracking “time to close” and “closed on first contact.” I could game those metrics, too. Doubt Delta has any way to track whether you come back or why you left.

    Birkenstock, via email: “Most of our clients think our shoes provide more than enough arch support.”

    OK. Guess that ticket got closed. Probably not what Marketing wanted, but closed on first response, nonetheless.

    Reminds me of the joke about a person calling 911–are you sure he’s dead? (Bam!) Yes.

  • I love the response from these folks when you do complain.
    Something like this:
    Customer: Your service was expensive crap and a real inconvenience to me
    Customer Service: Would you like some more if I give you a coupon?

    Once again, Bob, you seem psychic, (if I ignore all the stuff you missed, you know, like a “real” psychic). I’ve been going round and round about the need for actual, effective, and accountable problem management and can’t seem to get these same points across. Just let me document that the solution costs 50 bucks and let everyone know it!

Comments are closed.