Saturday, June 16, 2007

The Customer Service Long Tail

I'm writing this from the US Airways ticket counter at Philadelphia airport. I am trying to change flights for my family and I. We are flying back to Amsterdam.

For some bizarre reason three of us have paper tickets and one of us an e-ticket. That's why I have to be here in person: online and 'phone doesn't work for paper tickets. There is a change fee to be calculated. The ticket was booked with US Air in Amsterdam and this is the return leg of the journey

This is obviously an unusual situation but clearly not impossible since it's actually happened.

This is how it is going:

First of all there are no ticket offices anymore. You have to go to a full service check-in desk along with passengers for today's flights. And wait.

The agent cannot do what's needed at her terminal. She calls 5 different helpdesk numbers for assistance until someone is found who can.

The manual process is tortuous. In the end the Rate Desk has to completely recreate the tickets with new fares. It takes ages to complete even after the right expert was found.

It strikes me that I have landed in the customer service long tail. In this automated world, no-one thought of this use case. Moreover the knowledge needed to solve the problem is scarce. It took so much time because they had to locate someone with enough expertise on the booking system and rate knowledge. The system is so complex that it took even longer to solve the problem.

This may be worth thinking about when redesigning or outsourcing customer service. If this is truly a long tail then there is huge customer value in retaining those experts.

Mind you I couldn't help thinking what happens when Starbucks screw up an order. They give you your coffee for free. The irony of this situation was that it took ages for US Airways to calculate how much I had to pay them. As the gate agent said "this ain't Starbucks".

UPDATE it took more than two and a half hours to sort this out and cost me $1100

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