Last week, I went to book a flight at the United website, and when I went to get my seat assignment, I was being asked to pay more for ticketing in the Premier Zone.  This was second time that this happened; The first time was earlier this month.  The first time it happened, I called United and I was told it was a website problem.  I was ticketed in the Premier Zone.  This time when I called, I told the person helping me that this same thing had happened earlier in the month.  The customer service rep apologized and put me on hold to find out what the problem was.  A few minutes later, a timid and nervous voice informed me that there had been a policy change that went in effect on March 1st.  The change was this: Premier members with 25,000 to 50,000 miles were no longer allowed to ticket themselves in the Premier Zone without being charged.  If seats were available, we could book 24 hours in advance.  In other words, United would try to sell those Premier Zone seats, but if they had any seats left, United’s largest population of loyal flyers could upgrade… if they were lucky.

 

I’d like to tell you that I was alerted about this policy change, but in fact, it was never announced.  When I asked the rep how United was going to tell their Premier members, I was told it was posted on the website.  In other words, we weren’t going to be told of the change; We had to figure it out for ourselves.

 

When I complained about this, the United representative suggested that I send an email to the president of United Airlines and tell him.  I laughed and said, “Do you have his email address?”  Two minutes later, I was composing my email asking United’s president, Jeff Smisek if he was aware of this change.  I asked him if he knew how important that benefit was to his largest population of loyal customers, and if he cared.  I asked him if he knew what percentage of Premier Zone seats were actually available 24 hours before a flight.  Two hours later, Mr. Smisek sent me this email:

 

Sent: Wednesday, March 21, 2012 5:50 PM

To: Jolles, Rob

Subject: Re: A Road Warrior’s Concern

Thanks Robert.  You can book into E+ 24 hours out.  We have adjusted the program to grant increasing benefits to higher levels, and I know that you’re not happy with that.  It is a more rationale program, but I know hard to adjust to.  If we lose you as a customer, I will certainly regret that, but I hope we can win you back over time.

Best wishes,

Jeff

 

Okay, I admit it! I’m not sure if that was really the president of United who wrote that email, but someone named Jeff did respond!  After all, the president of United is probably a pretty busy guy.  If the president of United did respond, he probably would not have the time to carefully read my email, because I never even hinted that I might not be flying United anymore.  If the president of United did respond, he’d probably respond in an arrogant manner.  The email I received arrogantly assumed that because I was questioning a United policy, I was somehow threatening to leave.  I suppose I would I could, but Washington, D.C. is a United hub.

 

There are a lot of lessons that can be learned from this story.  See how many you caught.  If you are going to make massive policy changes…

  1. … you might want to announce it to your clients.
  2. … you might want to tell the folks who are on the front line, handling customer calls.
  3. … you might want to train the front line in how to best handle irate calls.
  4. … you might want to reconsider stripping away key benefits from your largest population of loyal clients.
  5. … you might want to be honest about why you made the changes you made.
  6. … you might want to show some sense of genuine remorse when you respond to a loyal, but disappointed, customer.

 

There is a true irony to this whole situation: As of today, I have 992,000 miles in my United account.  I will be going to and from London on business in a few weeks, and when I do, I will cross that million mile mark.  When I cross the million mile mark, I will instantly be given Premier Gold status for the rest of my life.  With that new designation, amongst other things, I will – once again – be allowed to book a seat in the hallowed ground of the Premier Zone whenever I purchase my ticket.  So why does this change in the United Airlines policy bother me so much?  Because I feel for any group of loyal clients betrayed by a corporate bully in such a callous, dishonest, and deceptive manner.

 

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