Flying the Not-So-Friendly Skies Can Teach Us All a Lesson

airlinerIf I never fly United Airlines again, it will be too soon. They have violated my trust over and over again. And I can’t be the only one. It’s a miracle they stay in business.

And as I went into hour #7 of my frustration with them yesterday, I realized that private patient advocates can actually learn from my latest United Odyssey. Here’s the story:

I can be found on anywhere from 30 to 50 flights in any given year, depending my speaking engagements and other consulting work. In general, airline customer service really tanked around 2008, except for Jet Blue which did a good job maintaining good customer service even when the recession hit. By 2012, most of the airlines I fly, like US Airways and Delta, started to get their improved customer service groove back on again.

Except United Airlines. Today they are still clueless. Every time I take a United flight, I swear it will be the last time. Unfortunately for some flights, I can’t avoid them.

It’s not that their customer service people aren’t polite – they are. They are quite FRIENDLY (fly the FRIENDLY skies!) and quite sincere. They do try to be helpful with the things they know to do.

But whoever is training United’s customer service people has missed the biggest boat that exists in customer service. I’ll tell you what that is in a moment.

Yesterday’s adventure was a perfect example of what I’m talking about. I had a reservation for a 4:12 PM flight home to Syracuse, NY from Chicago (where we held our APHA workshops). I purchased my ticket a month ago, I went online to check in and print my boarding pass the night before, and I was at the airport two full hours before the flight was scheduled to depart.

But I couldn’t get a seat assignment – not when I checked in online, not when I checked in with my baggage, and not at the gate where everyone SWORE to me I would be assigned a seat.

You can probably guess what happened. Yes – the flight had been oversold, and it turns out I was the lucky person who was bumped from the flight. I watched the plane take off without me (but WITH my suitcase of course!) – and stood at the gate counter for over an hour after it departed while they apologized up and down, rebooked me on a flight for today, the NEXT DAY, and gave me a stand-by ticket for a later flight last night.

But I didn’t want to get home last night OR today. If I had wanted to do that, I would have purchased tickets for those flights!

Here’s the problem – and here’s that boat they’ve missed (no pun intended.) NICE does not equal COMPETENT. And my definition of COMPETENT means someone who can explain something to me – and MANAGE MY EXPECTATIONS competently.

Before I got bumped I was told a half dozen times by the NICEST YOUNG MAN named Roly that he was sure I would get a seat. I did not.

Then I was told by another guy named ART in the very NICEST WAY that I was now going to receive a BIG CHECK from United because I had been bumped (Federal Law) — probably $1300! I was actually floored, but did remember hearing of such a new law…. When supervisor PETE finally arrived to write the check – it turned out the check was for a little over $800. How can you be disappointed with an $800, tax free windfall? You can’t – except that I EXPECTED it would be for $1300.

So you would think I would be placated in some fashion, right? I sauntered over to the gate for the 7:19 PM flight, check, hotel and meal vouchers in hand (I should be grateful for those), in hopes I could find a seat on that later flight…. Whereupon I met Alejandro who was quite sure he could get me on that flight even though it was booked solid…. So OK – I decided to hang around. At 7 PM there was still no plane at the gate, but we were told it was being brought over from the hanger and would be there within 5-10 minutes. At 8 PM when it still wasn’t there, (after three more promises of 5-10 minutes), we watched the crew walk down the walkway and disappear – they had gone to get the plane. It finally arrived at the gate about 8:45 (1-1/2 hours worth of 5 to 10 minutes promises), everyone got on the plane, and THEN I was told that YES! There was a vacant seat and I could have it! JOY! (But I have to ask – shouldn’t they have been able to tell me that at 7:20?) We all got on the plane, it backed away from the gate – and then we sat on the tarmac for another 30 minutes until they announced there was a maintenance problem that had to be fixed, but it would only take another 5 to 10 minutes!! – and we pulled back to the gate. Another half hour later, we finally pulled away from the gate and took off.

The pilot was friendly. The flight attendant was friendly. Everyone was friendly!! I was finally flying the FRIENDLY skies – but despite their FRIENDLINESS…

When we finally arrived in Syracuse, they wouldn’t let us off the plane. We were 2-1/2 hours late, it was 12:30 AM, everyone was tired and cranky. The flight attendant and the pilot kept telling us that we’d be able to deplane in – you guessed it – 5 to 10 minutes, but they needed the baggage people to come get the baggage off the plane. Almost a full half hour after arriving, we were let off the plane. Good thing. We were inches away from a revolt.

Then the icing on the cake. When I went to claim my suitcase a little after 1 AM (which, of course, had been there for more than 5 hours), I found it locked in their offices. I could see it! But they were long gone and I couldn’t get it. I went home empty handed. At least they hadn’t promised me I could find it. Truth is, without that (what would have been empty) promise, not getting access to my suitcase hardly disturbed me. I had expected it. No problem.

So why do I prattle on about this experience?

Anyone who has read much of my writing or has heard me speak knows that I focus a great deal on the very important communications tool of expectation management. It is KEY to good relationships with our clients, healthcare system personnel – and your spouse / partner, your kids, your parents – everyone else in your life. If you can learn to manage other people’s expectations well, and manage your own expectations, too, then you will find life far less frustrating.

The problems crop up when the people you must depend on MISmanage your expectations – and further – they do it over and over again. Despite United Airlines personnel’s extreme friendliness, they mismanaged my expectations over and over again until – guess what? Now they have managed my expectations to the point where I no longer trust a word from their very friendly mouths. What I DO trust is that they will violate their compact with me as their customer. I TRUST that they will screw up again and again and again – with very friendly SMILEs on their faces. And I will avoid flying on their airline as much as is humanly possible.

Once again – repeat after me – NICE does NOT EQUAL COMPETENT. Managing someone’s expectations means you must be honest and as much as possible, accurate. Further, you must under promise and over deliver – always estimating in conservative ways.

If a flight is going to be delayed possibly by hours, then tell me that! If you tell me it could be as much as 3 hours, and we take off in 2-1/2 hours – I’m happy at least because I didn’t have to wait so long! But if you tell me a dozen times that it will be 5-10 minutes, then all you do is frustrate me further, violating my trust over and over again. If you tell me you are almost POSITIVE I’ll get a seat on the flight for which I’ve held a ticket but have no seat assignment, and I don’t get that seat – well – you see what happens, right? I might write about you in my read-by-millions blog! Why not tell me there’s a possibility there won’t be a seat, but that you have a variety of ways to take good care of me to be sure I get what I need, instead?

  • If you are a patient advocate, and you tell your client that your work for her will take 10 hours, and later you tell her it’s going to take 15 hours (which she will then assume she needs to pay for) – then you have violated her trust. Why not estimate on a higher end, only to announce that it didn’t take as long (or incur as much cost) as you thought it would? Which way do you think she’ll be a happier client? Which way would you prefer if the shoe was on your foot?
  • If you are on your way to visit a client, and you are running 15 minutes late, call him and tell him you are running 20 minutes late – then when you are only 15 minutes late, he thinks you are early! If you don’t call him, or you do, then you tell him you’ll be a “few minutes late” – then you have violated his trust.
  • If you are reviewing a client’s hospital bills, and you think you might save him 5 thousand dollars, don’t tell him that. Tell him you might be able to save “a few thousand” – and then, when it’s more than that, he will be thrilled! If you give him a higher number and it turns out to be lower, then you will have violated his expectations and his trust.

I hope you’ll forgive the obvious and lengthy frustration in this post and see that what I’m trying to do is to turn my own highly negative experience into something we can all use.

This weekend, during the workshops in Chicago, we talked about expectations management in some very specific ways. In particular, the smearing of one’s brand, and the violation these negatives can have through word of mouth.

There most definitely IS a stain on United’s brand. Friendly just isn’t good enough. It’s a good lesson for us health and patient advocates, too.

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Agree? Disagree?

Share your experience or join the conversation!


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1 thought on “Flying the Not-So-Friendly Skies Can Teach Us All a Lesson”

  1. When we work as patient advocates/navigators, we are totally in control of what we do and promise. And Trisha’s right – we need to ‘tell it as it is’.

    Trisha’s story, though, reminded me of one summer during college when I waitressed at a hotel. On the menu was a certain kind of fish which one of my guests ordered. The chef served a different kind – a very different kind. I protested that they had asked for X and was shoved out of line by my fellow waitstaff and hushed – shhh, don’t get the chef mad at you if you want to keep your job.

    So, many times over the summer I was forced by the jerk-chef to disappoint my guests and could only smile when they lambasted me for what they didn’t get. And I have never, ever forgotten the lesson that the little people have NO control over what happens AND they must not bad-mouth the company if they value their jobs – or even admit they have no idea when the plane is coming.

    Don’t blame the waitstaff for foul-ups in the kitchen and don’t blame the gate attendants for the foul-ups elsewhere – or for not “telling it as it is.” They have no power. As people in business, we do. Good lesson.

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