Why I fired Orbitz

dreamstime_m_10532639I will apologize in advance for the detailed account that follows of an Orbitz service failure. It’s my preference to avoid long-drawn-out accounts of customer service stories – whether chronicling heroic triumphs or abysmal failures. Let’s face it: we all have plenty of experience with both. And while the details of our stories may differ, the emotions experienced are eerily similar.

After an all-day presentation in Tallahassee on August 24th, I arrived at the airport at 6:00pm to check-in for an 8:08pm flight to Charlotte. At the ticket counter I was told by the American Airlines agent that the flight had been canceled months earlier – on June 5, 2016. When I asked her why I wasn’t informed about the cancellation, she said that it wasn’t American’s responsibility to notify me because I had booked the itinerary through Orbitz. I needed to take it up with them.

I knew then that if I was going to get home that night, I couldn’t afford to joust with Orbitz about why I wasn’t notified about the itinerary change. I had a full day of work scheduled in Denver the following day and I couldn’t afford to spend the night in Florida. I had to move fast to book the next flight out of Tallahassee to a major airport offering late flights to Denver. The American rep confirmed that she could get me into Miami but I’d miss the last flight to Denver. Since the Delta Airlines counter was located next door, I checked with the Delta rep to see what options she had to get me home that night. She advised that, while she could sell me a ticket that would get me into Atlanta, there were no connecting flights to Denver available on Delta until the following morning.

After checking other carriers, the Delta rep confirmed that there was a 10:00pm Frontier Airlines flight to Denver. She cautioned me that I’d only have about 45 minutes to deplane from my Delta flight in Atlanta, claim my baggage, purchase my Frontier ticket at the main terminal, clear security, and board the Frontier flight to Denver. I decided to gamble and bought the one-way ticket to Atlanta.

Later that evening after deplaning in Atlanta, I sprinted through the airport to baggage claim, retrieved my bag, raced over to the Frontier Airlines ticket counter in the main terminal and purchased a nonrefundable one-way ticket on the last flight to Denver. From the time the Frontier agent handed me my boarding pass, I had exactly 24 minutes to clear security and board the flight. (Of course, the TSA agent had to swab both my bags to verify that I was not transporting a bomb. Also, just to convey the Southern hospitality for which they’re known, another TSA agent confiscated my 11 oz. can of Foamy shaving cream. Nice.)

When I was finally permitted to clear security, I then had to run a gauntlet of towering escalators, endure multiple train stops, and make my way to the farthest gate in Terminal D: the dreaded D1A. I boarded the flight with four minutes to spare. Naturally, we then sat at the gate for an hour waiting for a maintenance issue to be resolved. In total, it cost me an additional $752.30 to get home from Tallahassee.

The following day I contacted Orbitz and, as expected, was on the phone for more than an hour with the rep as she investigated my claims. She contended that Orbitz had sent me an email notifying me of the itinerary change on June 5, 2016. The problem is that, although I have a record of 56 promotional emails from Orbitz from June 5 to August 24, 2016, I had no record of the email in question. Nor did my web guy, Larry. Nor did my server guy, Simon. When I asked the Orbitz rep to forward the original email to me, she said that she does not have the actual email; she only has a notification that an email was sent.

So, here we are. Although American Airlines and Orbitz each got paid on May 26, 2016 when I booked the original itinerary, neither will accept any responsibility for the service failure – and I’m left holding the $752.30 bag.

Lessons from losses: Let’s suppose that Orbitz did send an email (the one that I, nor Larry, nor Simon can locate) notifying me of an itinerary change. Orbitz is a large, sophisticated organization with robust technology. Why can’t there be a redundant verification process that, if unacknowledged by the recipient, would initiate another level of contact (that may include a second email, a text message, or a phone call)? Heck, even my dog’s groomer offers this feature when confirming Nugget’s grooming appointments. If I don’t acknowledge receipt of the appointment confirmation via text, they call to confirm the appointment. Come to think of it, so do my chiropractor and children’s orthodontist.

There’s an old saying: “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” I was lead to believe by Orbitz that the itinerary I paid for in May would be honored in August. That didn’t happen and Orbitz refuses to accept any responsibility for the outcome. For that reason, I refuse to book another itinerary through Orbitz. Ever.

Don’t settle for ordinary. Choose extraordinary. (It’s always a choice.) Order Delight Your Customers: 7 Simple Ways to Raise Your Customer Service from Ordinary to Extraordinary by Steve Curtin or purchase from select retailers, including Barnes & Noble.

New! Cascade the lessons from Delight Your Customers throughout your department, division, or entire organization. Order the Delight Your Customers Companion Guide by Steve Curtin and Brian O’Neill.

Watch the 90-second book trailer.

Photo credit: © Brad Calkins

Profiting from poor service is unsustainable

An article titled Some Absurd Airline Rules in the August 18, 2016 Wall Street Journal caught my attention. What stood out to me was that each of the six rules highlighted in the article increased airlines’ ancillary revenues at the expense of overall customer satisfaction.

North America’s airlines charged nearly $11B in a la carte fees in 2015 and this number is only projected to rise. Meanwhile, services that used to be provided in the ticket price are being withheld. And I’m not simply referring to baggage handling and meals. Most airlines now charge at least $25 to buy a ticket from an agent over the phone – even if customers feel they need help with reservations that can’t be found online.

With all that added revenue contributing to record profits, why should airlines bother to consider the effect on overall customer satisfaction?

I have two thoughts regarding this question, both of which can be attributed to Stephen Covey’s book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. My first thought is that airlines, cable providers, banks, insurance carriers, and other companies that willfully subordinate customer service quality to profits are in violation of principles – natural laws that are timeless and self-evident – such as justice, fairness, integrity, honesty, service, quality, and excellence. Of the principles contained in his monumental movie, The Ten Commandments, Cecil B. deMille observed, “It is impossible for us to break the law. We can only break ourselves against the law.” Profits that are earned in violation of principles – natural laws – are unsustainable. (Think: Enron, Lehman Brothers, MF Global, Barings Bank, Martha Stewart, Leona Helmsley, Bernie Madoff…)

My second thought is rooted in Covey’s theory of Production (P)/Production Capability (PC) Balance. While the P/PC Balance theory may sound boring, it’s quite interesting – and quite true. Essentially, it’s the principle behind the popular Aesop’s fable of the goose and the golden eggs. As you may recall, the greedy farmer, in his attempt to achieve great wealth quickly, killed the goose (PC) that laid the golden eggs (P). Alas, there was no stockpile of golden eggs…only a dead goose.

Every business, including airlines, can take shortcuts to profitability at the expense of customer service quality and, as a result, perform better financially in the near term. Over time, however, companies that violate principles and exploit customers (PC) in their myopic pursuit of profits (P) learn, as did the greedy farmer, that this strategy is unsustainable.

Don’t settle for ordinary. Choose extraordinary. (It’s always a choice.) Order Delight Your Customers: 7 Simple Ways to Raise Your Customer Service from Ordinary to Extraordinary by Steve Curtin or purchase from select retailers, including Barnes & Noble.

New! Cascade the lessons from Delight Your Customers throughout your department, division, or entire organization. Order the Delight Your Customers Companion Guide by Steve Curtin and Brian O’Neill.

Watch the 90-second book trailer.

Illustration by Aaron McKissen.

Add value, not fees

crowded airportAccording to this article, all major U.S. carriers, aside from Continental and Southwest, have added a $10 surcharge to most of their fares for travel on three busy days around the Thanksgiving and New Year’s holidays: Nov. 29, the Sunday after Thanksgiving, as well as Jan. 2 and 3.

Rick Seaney, CEO of FareCompare.com, said the airlines likely added the charge because it was a quick, targeted way to charge more on peak travel days. The Sunday after Thanksgiving is one of the busiest travel days of the year, while the two dates in January are popular with holiday travelers as well.

So the airlines are charging passengers a $10 surcharge for the privilege of enduring congested airport traffic, fewer parking options, longer lines at the terminal and security, packed gates and airplanes, and the inevitable delayed flights and mishandled bags that result from seasonal volume.

Revenue-focused companies are really good at identifying and creatively labeling fees and surcharges and the asterisk keys on the keyboards of their legal departments are commonly worn from excessive use. If these companies would channel the same energy and ingenuity into customer satisfaction that they use to identify and apply extra fees and surcharges, they would more than recover the revenues gained from this irritating practice.

Customer-focused companies deal with seasonal spikes in business by adding value, not fees. When Disney is extra busy over the holidays or during spring break, it doesn’t charge its guests fees or surcharges to offset its increased costs. Instead Disney adds value by offering packages that bundle airfare, lodging, and theme park admissions. Disney also adds staff to minimize delays and provides additional entertainment by its characters to amuse children as they wait in line to enjoy another ride. That’s how a customer-focused company deals with volume—not by charging extra for it.

Anytime making money becomes more important than properly serving customers, the business ultimately suffers. When the bottom line drives a company, it will resort to added fees and surcharges while cutting back on service and quality in order to improve its near-term operating statement at the expense of long-term customer goodwill and loyalty.

There should be a litmus test for any such charge. If a board of directors would vote for it unanimously while a group of customers would oppose it unanimously, get rid of it. Instead, make your money the old fashioned way: Earn it by providing value to customers by delivering exceptional product and service quality that justifies the price you’re charging.