Friday, August 1, 2008

Traveling Week - SuperShuttle Web Reservations Aren't The Droids You're Looking For

SuperShuttle has an interesting approach to business on the web. They have convenient e-commerce site for reserving a rides from the airport. Their site is simple, easily accessible and simplifies the whole process of selecting the airport, the time you expect to arrive and dealing with the payment. The biggest challenge with their whole interface is that the have a very explicit, detailed cancellation and refund policy that they require you to read before you complete the transaction. You might expect that the purpose is to provide some nominal compensation to the SuperShuttle if you skip out on them after they were holding a space for you in one of their vans.

Well, as it turns out, there’s more behind the reservation/cancellation policy than you might expect. Here’s my experience. I was traveling to the east coast and arriving after midnight (one of the challenges of the west-to-east flight). Expecting that most things would be closed by the time I arrived which would make it difficult to make arrangements on the ground (other than the off-the-shelf taxi experience), I decided to booking the shuttle and reserve a space. When I've been picked up by other shuttle services (hotel, limo), the drivers will monitor the flight information for status and delays and are at the airport when the flight arrives.

However, it turns out that SuperShuttle doesn't do that. When you book the shuttle and you tell them when you are arriving, they don’t really do anything with that data (other than taking your money). They don’t start the process of putting you into a van until you check in at the SuperShuttle desk -- and your van will be available 20-50 minutes after you check in. You'd do just as well purchasing your ride at the desk when you arrive, or put in business terms, delaying your purchase decision until you could make your best choice in terms of cost versus time.

In my case, I had to wait 40 minutes after checking in with the SuperShuttle desk before my ride was ready to go -- loaded with seven people. Fortunately for me, I was the second person dropped off -- they also don’t provide you any feedback about the order that you will be dropped off in, and consequently, when you could actually expect to arrive. After arriving after midnight, I didn’t finally get to the hotel until three-ish. It was late, so I hardly remember the exact time. In my case, if I had more information, I would have selected the cab experience -- I would have preferred to trade the $35 price difference for 2 hours extra time at the hotel attempting to sleep.

Out of curiosity, I asked a representative at the SuperShuttle counter if it was common for customers to be disgruntled about the disconnect between the reservation system and the availability of the ride once you land. I was told that the experience is not uncommon (at least once a week, they get someone who is pretty grumpy about it). As a front line customer service person, the rep also mentioned initially feeling really bad for the customers who had problems (got worked) by the system, but that had diminished over time working with SuperShuttle. The rep explained that the drivers are all basically freelance, so it’s difficult for them to wait when there are big airport delays -- many basically clock out.

My issue isn’t with the drivers, my issue is with the reservation system and the bait-and-switch nature of the commitment. With their system, SuperShuttle implies that the online reservation provides you with some advantage, but it doesn’t actually provide you with anything -- it simply locks you into a purchase and a system designed to make it difficult for you to change your selection if their service isn’t inline with your expectation. Many traditional businesses use this strategy both online and offline.

In one organization, we reduced the our bookings with because they were booking reservations with a no cancellation or a full-charge cancellation policy, making it an expensive option for the changing dynamics of business travel (combined with the “what if this hotel truly sucks” factor). The same deal worked with Cell-phone contracts -- sign you up for a couple of years, and if your service sucked (like you couldn’t get cell service at your house), charge a steep service cancellation charge. Cingular Wireless initially responded to this competitive environment with a switch anytime plan -- for me, this was a big factor in them winning my business from Verizon.

Of course, the companies that do business this way don’t have to change, they don’t have to be responsive to customers -- but the world around them is changing. Years ago, I might have just told my colleagues about my annoyance with SuperShuttle -- warned them against doing business with them if they were on a tight schedule. But in today’s marketplace, I’m publishing this for the world to read. What’s more, it taught me another lesson -- I’m going to be even more careful about my transportation choices in the future. My friends and I already do it some now -- we check yelp before we pick restaurants, we check TripAdvisor before we stay at a hotel. SuperShuttle has taught me that I need to inspect these travel logistic layers even deeper, so if have a positive takeaway from the whole experience, it’s that.

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