Notes from the United Airlines Customer Disservice Counter

I had a little run-in with the “customer service” folks at United Airlines last week. I won’t bother you with the details, because there was nothing particularly unique about the problem, and if you fly United with any frequency you’ve probably encountered as bad, or worse. Short version – when you strand me in a city overnight and cost me pretty much an entire workday, I don’t consider putting me up in a hotel for the night to be “compensation.” You’re the only reason I needed the hotel to start with. If I might exaggerate for purposes of illustrating a point, that’s kind of like running me over with a car, then telling me that you’ll cover the ambulance ride and we’ll be even.

Now, my first inclination was to uncork on the shrews working the Customer Disservice counter at Denver International Airport. But I changed my mind, because that would have been shooting ducks in a barrel. Granted, these people were surly even by United’s standards, and the supervisor was the single bitchiest airline employee I have ever encountered anywhere, which is saying something.

But ultimately the situation was newsworthy not because they were unhelpful and hateful. You learn in the first five minutes of Journalism 101 that if it happens every day, it ain’t news, and in the category of great non-headlines, “United Airlines falls short on customer service” ranks right up there with “Senator influenced by corporate lobbying” and “Red Sox fail to win World Series.”

What makes this story worth the time it takes to tell is what these women had to say about their jobs and the company policies governing what they can and cannot do. At a couple junctures in my “negotiations” with the staff, the subject of shoddy customer service came up (this was sometime after the initial assertion that the hotel room the night before was sufficient compensation). What the disservice reps had to say in their defense was illuminating, and goes a long way toward explaining why so many people hate United and why so many stories have been written on the subject.

I will do my best to reproduce the agents’ words as accurately as possible, because what they actually said is more revealing than anything I could or would make up. Also, note that this was all said openly in front of several customers standing in line.

First, they all made clear that the company’s policy was strictly against providing refunds, credits, bonus miles, etc., and they said they could lose their jobs if they “provide[d] customer service.”

Noticed those quote marks, did you? Let me give you the whole line:

Sir, customer service, that’s when you want us to give you something when things go wrong. If we provide customer service, they’ll fire us.

Say what?

I knew this one girl here, and they fired her. There was this woman in the terminal with two small children, and she had been stranded for two days. Finally, the girl who worked here got her a hotel room and the company fired her for it.

Now things begin to come into focus. It was plainly evident from all my past experiences with United that they didn’t exactly blow the whole budget on customer service training, but up until last week I didn’t realize how openly hostile management is to the idea of making things right for fliers with legitimate complaints.

Once I heard this, I even began to feel a bit sorry for these people, especially the one woman who finally did the right thing and gave me a $75 credit, a move that will probably get her terminated. [Note: I was flying with a co-worker who was trying her luck three windows down, where the aforementioned supervisor was categorically refusing to acknowledge that she could offer such a credit. Eventually, my co-worker wandered up to the rep I’d initially been dealing with and got the same $75 credit. So at this point you have a system that’s both ill-tempered and inconsistent. And for what it’s worth, being undercut by the other rep did nothing to improve the supervisor’s humor.]

I mean, look at them. Look at the job they have to do. For starters, any customer service job is going to put you at the mercy of the occasional jackass, the blustering boob job who nobody respects because he’s a tool, and who takes every opportunity to bully those who, for fear of getting canned, can’t give him the swift, steel-toed boot to the balls he so richly deserves.

But unless these women were all lying to us, United is doubling down on their reps, taking away the one salvation of the customer service job: the ability to actually help customers who genuinely need it. You work the counter for a lot of companies (or wait tables or staff a call center) and at the end of the day you can feel good about yourself, because once or twice during your shift you made the day a better place for a genuinely nice, deserving human being. That person left the counter smiling, and they left you smiling.

With United, it’s like they have a camera monitoring the Disservice counter, and if they catch anybody smiling, asses will be whipped and names will be taken.

You can see the toll it takes just by standing off and watching a United desk. Many of these poor people hate your fucking guts before you even get to them. There’s minimal chance of a happy encounter – with many other companies you at least get to begin your complaint on a pleasant note, even if it eventually turns contentious. But United reps know they’re not allowed to help you, and as such all customers (or at least a lot of them) are automatic failures, guaranteed to leave unsatisfied, guaranteed resentments, guaranteed losses. The game is over before it begins. It’s a forfeit.

You know what? If you put me in a situation like this, I’d probably be pretty damned surly after a few months, too.

But what are you going to do in a job market like this one? It’s not like you can walk away from United and find dozens of even better jobs to choose from. So you buckle down, punch the clock and take your beating, I guess.

I guess. But then there was this, the oddest single exchange in the whole encounter. The supervisor (and if she ever gets into Hell Satan won’t last ten minutes), explaining that if she did what I was asking she would probably get fired, snarled:

Sir, I like my job and don’t want to lose it.

Damn. You have to wonder what makes somebody like this tick, don’t you?

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