Thursday, May 22, 2014

United Doesn't Have a List Like Hotel Tonight

I always enjoy Paul Carr's writing. I came across this post of his this morning, talking about how Hotel Tonight now appears to maintain a "list of influencers" -- people who have been very vocal in their complaints -- then calls the hotel when the influencer books in order to ensure that the customer has an ideal experience.

It's both funny and insightful. While I've personally been following the Hotel Tonight app since it was first introduced (also Paul Carr's writing about it) and I've recommended the app to others as an excellent solution for a common problem, I've never used the app personally. Why? Early on, I was curious what hotels that the used and considered 'qualified'. But for me, somewhere between not having the right need and the right opportunity, using Hotel Tonight for a stay hasn't happened.

At the same time, I must admit that I have been influenced by Carr's complaints about the service. I started out having a great deal of trust in the app, but after reading about some of Carr's problems, I've been very hesitant to use it personally. When you're in a 'crisis' moment, there's nothing worse that not having a solution that you can trust, but sometimes that's all you have left. If, on the other hand, you're thinking about spending your own money on some sort of surprise special occasion night, the idea that you wind up getting put up in really crappy room -- or that the booking is unreliable -- is unsettling.

My point is, word of mouth has had influence, both on my behavior and on Hotel Tonight's business practices. And, at the same time, having just completed another United Airlines flight with Premier status on no special treatment, I suspect that United Airlines believes that word of mouth will have little or no influence on their business -- particularly as my audience is much smaller than Pando / Techcrunch.

More of my Whining about United Airlines
FYI, for those that are curious, here's a basic summary of my flight experience. Flights were delayed or canceled by severe weather, so some customer tensions were high. The people part of United's business were all exceptionally friendly. In the United Club, I even saw a service worker -- not working for tips, just servicing the free food counter -- go out of her way to help some older lady who was traveling with her husband and was looking for the raisins and yogurt they usually had out in the morning. Really nice people.

And then there was the flight: the 737-800/900 has the older style of seats with more room in the seat pocket (better than the miserable new Airbus seats), enough to hold my Macbook Air or a water bottle. That being said, I was once again about 30th on the list of upgraded travelers and sitting in the back of the plane with an inch or so less legroom that I would get on a base-fare flight on JetBlue.

At some point, you begin to formulate a customer experience equation question: if customer service and the core product are independent but related, how crappy does a product have to be where no level of excellent customer service can elevate it to the point where you win the business?

Monday, May 19, 2014

United's Mileage Plus and the Fuzzy Math of Customer Loyalty

So this morning was yet another United flight, one last one that I had already booked before deciding to avoid United in the future. This morning's flight was a rather full one out of San Jose. As you can imagine, my frustration with United's Premier customer experience has been such an active thread in my thoughts, it almost feels like that's all I want to write about. It's certainly cast an unhappy shade on my life for the past two weeks, with my overall frustration running at a low simmer.

Anyway, I was reflecting on their customer loyalty and comparing it to the customer loyalty experience that you have at the local grocery store, the drug store, or some of those other businesses that like to operate loyalty programs.

When you think about the loyalty experience at the local grocery store, typically a couple of things are going to happen. Stores often offer loyalty program customers sale prices on certain items. As you walk through the store, you can see the sale prices and quickly measure the benefits of participating in the store's loyalty program. Additionally, as you check out, you'll often be presented with information at the register and on your receipt -- you saved this much. There is a very clear reward for your participation in the loyalty program.

Similarly, with coffee shops and the 'free cup after you've bought 10 cups' style of program, you can opt in easily because your typically buying the coffee anyway, and there isn't necessary a requirement to trade identity or suffer in some way.

Contrast that with an airline loyalty program like United's Mileage Plus. Here, you have to log a set level of business with them, enough to be considered a Premier or higher level of customer. Once you hit this threshold, you are essentially entered into a lottery, with chances that increase based on your mileage for the year.

Flying out of San Jose this morning, there were over 50 names on the list of flyers automatically place in line for an upgrade. That means that, even if you're a loyal United customer and have logged many flight miles with the company, there is only a 15% chance that your experience will be upgraded. Otherwise, like me, you will most likely experience their base level of service. This means that approximately 85% of the people on today's flight came to the airport with elevated expectations from the business, but were not treated any differently than if they had not participated in the loyalty program in any way.

Imagine going to the grocery store, taking your items to the register, then only getting the sale prices, randomly, 15% of the time -- how would that affect your loyalty at that grocery store?

Friday, May 16, 2014

Processing Credit Cards in Canada

On our recent visit to Canada, we got to experience the way that Canadian merchants handle credit card transactions. Essentially, for a credit card transaction, the clerk or waiter configures the charge, swipes your card, then hands you a portable credit card terminal. At this point, you can review the charges and, if you're at a restaurant, add the tip.

For me, the thing that I found most interesting was the tipping percentages. Some restaurants preconfigure the tip percentages. These preset values could be 15%, 18%, 20%, or even 25%. Often in the interface, you are provided options to enter other percentages or just a specific dollar amount.

Traditional restaurant etiquette suggest that a proper tip is 15-18% of the bill. For some accountants or particularly tight tippers, they may also calculate the tip based on the pre-tax dollar amount. But, often enough, because 15-18% calculations are a little difficult to make (and most restaurant service staff doesn't make much for wages beyond their tips), it's not uncommon to simply tip 20% because it's such an easy calculation.

So, as I used the Canadian credit card transaction system, the thing that kept running through my head was, if you can easily select 15% or 18% and have the calculations handled for you, are you more likely to select that lower number? And, on the average, does this system therefore suck for waiters in Canada?

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

More United Frequent Flyers Express Dissatisfaction

It appears that I am not alone. After my recent post, Loyalty Programs, Status, and Mileage Plus Disappointment, I've began hearing commentary from friends and colleagues who have essentially removed United from their preferred airlines list. Again, these are people who have been Premier or Premier Exec, and now essentially preferentially look for other airlines. Anecdotes that I've heard even include paying for upgrades to Economy Plus, then expensing the upgrade separately.

I can also tell you that, for the majority of the coast-to-coast round trip business travelers that I've spoken with, JetBlue and Virgin America are their preferred carriers. Even with some of the frequent international travelers, they will opt for JetBlue or Virgin America domestically and ignore any mileage incentive.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Loyalty Programs, Status, and Mileage Plus Disappointment

If you've seen my recent Twitter feed, you'll note my frustration with United Airlines and their loyalty program. I had booked a flight to Chicago, departing San Francisco at around 6:00pm, scheduled for a midnight arrival, and United canceled the flight and rebooked me on a red eye leaving SFO at 10:00pm and arriving in Chicago at 4:30 in the morning. Flight cancellations happen. It's the nature of travel. For me, the real issues revolve around United's loyalty program, Mileage Plus, and how that correlates to their overall customer service.

First, a bit of background. In the fall of last year, my fiancé had to travel to Japan for business. I love Japan and we thought it would be fun for me to go with her on the trip. At her company, they typically fly on American or JAL, so she often has status on American Airlines. For me, I've been flying on United for many years. So, as I looked at my ticket to Japan last year, I had several choices:
  1. I could use my existing United miles to book a free flight. Over the years, I've collected a number of miles but never spent them on anything but seat upgrades.
  2. I could pay for a ticket on the same flight that my fiancé was on, an American Airlines flight.
  3. Or, I could buy a ticket on a United flight, a flight with enough miles to elevate me back into Premier status. 
I opted to buy my ticket on United and return to status.

How I came to fly United Regularly
In my early days of business travel, I used to be very open about which airline I flew on, with one caveat -- I generally avoided United Airlines. At the time living in the south bay, United didn't fly many planes out of the San Jose airport. Choosing United meant going to SFO, which meant a 45-minute-plus drive, larger crowds, and many more hassles. Then, in the late 1990s, I found myself booked on a United flight out of San Jose. The people at the counter were nice, there was no crowd, the security line was short, and the overall experience was awesome. After that flight, I decided to fly on United for all of my flights, with a preference for flying in and out of San Jose -- selecting SFO only for international flights.

In those days, flying UA out of SJC was mostly painless. They had a very limited set of destinations, Denver, Chicago, Dulles, or LAX, but it was easy and cheap to make a stop in Chicago or Denver if you didn't mind a slight layover.

For a period of time, even flights out of SFO weren't too bad. Before they opened the Bart to SFO leg, Caltrain operated a shuttle from the Millbrae station, and you could get back and forth between Caltrain and SFO on a free shuttle that ran every 10 minutes. Once they opened the Bart to SFO leg though, the shuttle was shut down, the travel time increased to 30-45 minutes, and they started charging you a surcharge for the Bart SFO stop.

After the bankruptcy, the number of available United flights out of San Jose seemed to drop and the flights became increasingly crowded. These days, if you want to fly out of San Jose, the cost for a United ticket to whatever your final destination is usually about 20% higher than the cost of flying out of SFO. But while it may be cheaper over all, many of our business travel programs are now driven by software that compares pricing and if you aren't within $100 of the lowest priced ticket, you're outside of the corporate travel policy. And don't even get me started about the idea of paying to upgrade -- I'd be surprised if there are many corporate travel policies that would cover that.

How the Mileage Plus Loyalty Program Drove Me To Quit Choosing United
You'd think that having logged lots of miles and getting status would be an indication that of an overall level of satisfaction with a service. And yet, it was getting back to Premier status that really crushed the relationship-connection that I felt with United (if liking or preferring an airline is even possible).

In the old days as a Premier passenger, they would automatically upgrade your seat to Economy Plus, an ideal solution for business travel. With Economy Plus, you have enough leg room to be comfortable and space to use your laptop during the flight. Having been through several flights last year in the miserably cramped economy seats, I was hopeful that getting back to Premier status would alleviate this problem. Unfortunately, several years ago, they started selling upgrades to economy plus to everyone, and the number of seats available in economy plus seems to have dropped. With multiple flights on United already this year, not once have I been moved to Economy Plus.

How I Lost Status
Often, business travel can be a choice -- we can push to travel for an event or an activity, or, conversely avoid traveling. Over the past couple of years, I could have traveled more. Often it was easier to avoid traveling than to go through the hassles of uncomfortable seats, long lines, and the always annoying expense report -- the disincentives of travel.

By limiting the majority of my travel to the west coast, I quickly found myself on very few United flights. After all, why should I go through the hassles of going to SFO when I could hop a Southwest flight out of SJC down to southern California for the same cost or less and have a similar or better overall experience? Once, we wound up on an American loop through LAX and it was so bad that I vowed never to fly on American again if I could in any way avoid it.

Once I quit traveling so frequently and I lost status, traveling became even more unpleasant. When you get to this point, you are essentially free to explore other carriers because they are all similarly bad. This is how I can tell you with absolute certainty that the basic experience on JetBlue or Southwest meets or exceeds any base level service provided by the "top tier" carriers. In terms of quality of service, they've got nothing better. And this is why they try to sell you on mileage and status.

This is also why, if you're just looking at the base level of service, the policies that the major carriers have implemented -- like checked baggage fees -- are such a frustration for frequent business travelers. Sure, the airlines can pick up an extra $50 when uncle Fred and aunt Ethel make their annual vacation visit to see the family, but for most of the not business traveling public, trying to skip baggage fees invariably means that lots more people trying to use the carry-on space without practice at maximizing space in the overhead compartment, all to store stuff that they probably could have checked.

The Fading Illusion of Behind the Loyalty Program Incentive
If an airline's base level service is no better than the "discount" airline, their primary incentive for you to use their service is their loyalty program. They sell you on the idea that, if you just stick with them, you could be one of the people who gets preferential, "decent" treatment. It's essentially an unspoken promise that, "don't worry, one day it will get better." 

Consider the benefits of a program like Mileage Plus that counts your travel miles, then gives you credit based on those miles. Your credits can be used to purchase a ticket, upgrades, or even merchandise. Of course, until you purchase something, all of those miles are simply an illusionary currency. In order to get something of value, it often takes a lot of miles, so there is also some incentive to hold onto them for a long time.

Over my years of flying on United, I've had thousands and thousands of miles, but I've never used them for anything other than upgrades to the class of my seat -- something that was useful to me and used to be much easier in the past, but that has become nearly impossible with the reduced human interaction involved in flying these days. Meanwhile, over the years, United has steadily degraded the value of their currency -- where a single class seat upgrade used to cost 5,000 miles for domestic, now it's 20,000. Using miles to book flights -- something I've never done -- is more expensive too.

For many of us, using miles and hotel points to 'purchase' travel or hotel stays is nearly impossible. Not all of us can say, "next August I will take a vacation in fill-in-the-blank destination." Instead, our vacations tend to be more along the lines of, "hey, it looks like we have a couple of days open in three weeks." You can't typically use miles or points for that kind of travel. And do you really want to spend the cost of two or three "upgrades" to "decent class" on a $150 flight down the coast or $300 flight halfway across the country to see uncle Fred and aunt Ethel? Those are the kinds of tickets that we don't usually buy unless they are cheap.

Meanwhile, they keep deflating the currency. I once had something like 100,000 Hilton Honors points -- never actually used them because I couldn't find a window of time, a destination, and enough lead time to try to book with points. Then one day, Hilton expired them all. Nowadays I still stay at Hilton hotels sometimes, but I would hardly call myself loyal. Probably a lot less loyal now.

Two years ago, United was on the verge of "expiring" my miles. Rather than let them lapse, I deciding to give the airline another chance. In that way, you could describe the past year and a half flying with airline as sort of an experiment. During the past year or so dealing with the airline, I've had some pleasant customer experiences with the people working at United. I've had gate attendants jump through hoops to help re-route my flight and avoid massive delays or getting stranded. Really nice people doing a great job. But, fundamentally, the question is the same as I mentioned in one of my Twitter posts: can really great customer service possibly overcome a product that is so otherwise frustratingly poor?

From My Recent Flight
Here are a few pictures that I took on my recent flight.
No Leg Room in Economy Class on United
These new seats have such a small, tight seat back pocket that you can't really put anything in them. The only way that I could even fit a water bottle in that space was to open it, drink about 1/3 of it, then deflate it. Also, you've gotta love the leg room -- I think I probably had less than an inch of clearance.
No Room to Use a Laptop in Economy Class on United
It's a little hard to tell from this photo, but I can only open my laptop partway, maybe 70°. In the past, I've sometimes put my laptop in my lap to try to gain extra clearance, but it didn't seem to help much in these seats. Additionally, because of the way that the tables hinge, I almost bump my knees on the tray table supports.

While these accommodations might be tolerable for a $100 one hour flight down the coast, spending three or four hours like this sucks. Add to that things like paying $10 for wireless internet connectivity that is so bad, you're lucky to successfully load a very simple page like Google, and you have a very unsatisfactory customer experience -- all multiplied by this promise that you've made to me, your loyal status-holding customer, to deliver an exceptional experience.

This is what I see as the real driver underneath the problem. As 'loyal' customers with status, we have passed through the veil, we have seen the truth behind the marketing promise, and there is very little substance to back those promises.

United and Mileage Plus, You Are Now Unpreferred
I'm done. Your loyalty incentive has no substance. Your tiered service levels have reached the point that even Premier status doesn't make them tolerable. You've had multiple chances to wow me and instead simply provided me with more reasons why I don't enjoy spending money with you. I may fly on your airline in the future, but I will no longer choose you.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Amtrak Customer Service Epic FAIL

So we were on the road last week, out and about in Seattle and Vancouver as it were. As always, travel can be such an interesting window into culture, marketing and customer service best practices. Because we were in Seattle for a couple of days, we thought it would be interesting to pop up to Vancouver and enjoy some of the wonderful food and Canadian culture.

Crossing the border with a rental car can sometimes be problematic, not to mention the four hours of drive time and an unpredictable wait at the border, so we looked for other options. The Amtrak Cascades line running between Seattle and Vancouver seemed like an amusing option in that we'd have free wifi and power the entire way, and there was a dining car so that we could drink and relax on the ride.

Round One: Riding Into Canada
After meetings in Bellevue, we managed to make it to the rental car return in downtown Seattle at about 6 pm. The evening Amtrak train departs at 6:50. The rental car agent said that a taxi across downtown would take too long and suggested walking directly there. We arrived at the station, slightly out of breath, at about 6:40. Since we had pre-booked our tickets, it simplified some of the process. In Seattle, we walked up to the gate, they conductors looked at our E-Ticket on the iPhone, asked to see our passport, then assigned us a seat. In that way, they were super nice. We found our way to our car, boarded the train, and in short order the train rolled out.

Once on the train, we saw that the couple across the aisle from us had brought along a beautiful sandwich. Unfortunately, we had no had time to stop, so I made my way back to train's dining car. Unfortunately, this was not the restaurant-on-rails experience you sometimes see in the movies. Instead, it was prepackaged sandwiches and snacks. I grabbed a bottle of wine and a few snacks and headed back to our car. The other noteworthy aspect about my journey through the train was that the Amtrak wasn't like one of the trains in Japan -- it was ripe with unpleasant smells, tired fixtures, and a general disrepair that made it feel more run down than a really tired BART car.

Unfortunately on the way up, we also faced a new surprise. There'd been an earthquake in Vancouver and they were slowing all trains on the line in order to inspect the track for damage. Hey, this stuff happens. Eventually, after waiting for a while as far north as they would let us go, they called in a couple of buses to take us across the border and into Vancouver. Admittedly, not my first bus bridge, but the Amtrak folks managed to pull it together better than my last bus bridge on Caltrain.

Super Travel Challenge Problem: Leaving Canada
So we were scheduled to take the Saturday evening train out of Vancouver. In my mind I was expecting that the evening train out of Vancouver left around the 6:50 time, so I set an alarm for us to ensure that we were wrapping up our activities and headed for the train station at that time. Checking the schedule later that morning, I saw the posted time that the train leaves of 5:50 pm.

And so, at a little after 5:00pm, having stopped by the grocery store and picked up sandwiches and snacks for dinner on the train, we found ourselves attempting to grab a cab to the train station. Unfortunately, the first cab that the doorman had called for us decided to leave when he went inside to tell us the cab was ready. A minute or two later and he had recruited a second cab. Canadians are a very polite people, and our cab driver was no exception. On the way to the train station, he exhibited a level of patience with traffic that some (myself for example), would probably consider slow. Really slow. Add to this that we planned to pay with a credit card (spent our last bit of Canadian cash on sandwiches), and the time it takes to use the "extra-secure" credit card terminals they use in Canada, and it took four or five minutes to pay the cab driver.

And this had us walking into the Vancouver train station with our luggage, looking up at the large clock that said 5:31. As we walked toward the gate, we could the customs guys clearly, behind glass locked glass doors, unwilling to let anyone in. A second look around noted a sign that said, "security closes 20 minutes before departure." We knocked on the door. The guys there wouldn't answer -- instead waving us off. The only guy willing to help us was a train station security guard who told us to take down the number of Amtrak and call for a refund, noting that this happens all the time. He also directed us to the Greyhound line there at the terminal and suggested that we check to see if there was a bus going to Seattle.

The Canada VIA guy (in a different section of the station) was also no help and wouldn't talk to us. Apparently what I missed, in between my furor and rounds of expletives, was a young Asian woman arriving a couple of minutes after we did, experiencing the same problem, and bursting into tears needing help. Of course, no one from Amtrak came to her aid either. Clearly, it really does happen all the time.

As much as we would have enjoyed another day in Vancouver, we were already booked on an early flight out of SEATAC the next morning that was contingent on getting to Seattle that night. After scrambling around, we learned about the "BoltBus", a Greyhound based line that makes an express run and will take on unbooked passengers if space is available. We boarded, made the trip across the border with wifi and electrical outlets for the entire trip down. While not as relaxed as we imagined the train would have been, it was cleaner and the time was probably a wash. In all though, the entire experience put a bit of a damper on our otherwise enjoyable experience.

Wrapping up
While I try to avoid saying never, it will be a long time before Amtrak gets my money again. While there are some nice people working there -- my overall customer experience was so bad that I would put Amtrak in the 'seriously sucks' category. Normally, I like the rail experience -- I love the trains in Japan and Europe, and I prefer Caltrain over Bart -- but, gah, the experience in Vancouver was so bad.

As we typically do, I spent some time reflecting back, chewing over those last minutes, thinking about things that I should have known or that I could have done differently. Somewhere in my memory of going through all of the information on the Amtrak site, I vaguely remember seeing something about the need to be early on the trip leaving Vancouver. That being said, consider some of the root causes, how they compare to similar travel experiences, and why -- at the end of the day -- we feel like Amtrak sucks.
  • The published time for the train departure was 5:50pm. While this published time sets the clock for the gate closing 20 minutes before, it's otherwise meaningless to the traveler. What's more, since everyone has to go through the security line before they get on, for all intents and purposes the train actually departs at 5:30pm. Imagine if instead of publishing 5:50 as the time, they published 5:30, then told you once you passed security, that the train wouldn't actually pull out of the station until 5:50 -- how many fewer people do you think would miss the train?

  • Compare the security experience at Amtrak versus that at the airport. First, since your airport experiences are all going to be somewhat similar, you can plan to buffer a significant amount of time for security. At the same time, if you arrive 30 minutes before your flight, the security people and the airline people may tell you there's no way that you will make it to the plane before it departs, but they won't just close the doors and stop you from continuing. This was the most frustrating aspect of the Amtrak experience -- with 19 minutes to go before the train left the station there were 5 or 6 guys just standing around. There was no line, they weren't working through a crowd of people, they were done. Essentially, they just shut off their customer service switch at 5:30. Why not keep processing -- if possible -- until it's no longer possible to make the train, to play until you hear the whistle?
There is a great disparity between the rail experience that we offer in the US and that in Asia or Europe. Any time we travel, we marvel at the train systems and find ourselves wishing for a similar system back home. Sadly, our experience with Amtrak tells us that we have a long way to go and that the future is not bright for trains in the US. A key part of that is the customer experience. In that way, Amtrak gets a large "Would Not Recommend" banner. Caveat Emptor.