Everyone's favorite airline to kick around is the subject of an article in the New York Times (via Reuters) today, discussing how it needs to further cut costs, including through outsourcing.
What is not mentioned in the article is that United already outsourced some of its functions, and as a result of that decision, has nearly (if not actually) lost customers.
A month ago when I went to Memphis something weird happened to my reservation. As a premier member one of the perks is that I'm entitled to a seat in the Economy Plus part of the plane. It's the part with more legroom, and it's also in the front of the plane (the aspect I care about more). So whenever a seat is available, which is most of the time, I reserve my seats there. But when I got to the airport to check in, I discovered that the system had removed me from the forward window seat I'd booked and relocated me to an aisle seat in the back, and at this late date there were no seats remaining for me to move back to. This was annoying, but seemed like a fluke.
However, when I checked in a few weeks later for the trip to California and the same thing happened, I decided it wasn't a fluke. Something was definitely wrong. So I called customer service. And what a train wreck that was.
Actually, before I called customer service I called reservations. As I was stranded in the security line and unable to talk to the gate agent, I called the reservations number (the only one I had) to implore them to fix this. Or at the very least communicate to the gate agent since I was unable to. It was a painful, unproductive conversation as I had to pull teeth to get the agent to realize that there was a problem (Her: "You have to pay for a seat in Economy Plus." Me: "No, as a premier member I'm entitled to sit there!") or that there was anything that could possibly even be attempted to fix my current situation. (Her: "It's all controlled by the gate." Me: "I know that! So please send a message to the gate! You can do that!" And I was right…)
Once in Denver, like in Memphis, an airport agent was able to fix my seat assignments for my return flights. But they couldn't fix the systemic problem and instead gave me the customer service number. That was when the real train wreck ensued.
The first person who answered the phone had no concept of what he was doing. He kept focusing on how to spell my name. Minutes passed before we got around to talking about what my problem actually was, which, like the reservations agent before, he discounted. (Him: "You need to buy a seat in Economy Plus." Me: "NO I DON'T!!!!"). The conversation descended from there, as he threw what sounded like pre-packaged excuses at me and made no attempt to recognize, let alone fix, the problem. So I asked for the supervisor, and got the same thing.
At this point, having talked to three consecutive people with Indian accents, I suspected outsourcing. It used to be when you called United that you'd get a lot of people with Midwestern accents, so it was a bit of a giveaway. But what was also a giveaway is the complete lack of any personal interest in solving the problem. In the days of the employee/owners of United you would always encounter a strong sense of initiative. And if you didn't… well, then United went through rounds of layoffs. Plenty of occasion to weed out the bad apples. But it seems that in all these layoffs they also managed to weed out the good apples too.
Anyway, at this point after three separate conversations I'd yet to find someone to take any real accountability. The conversation ended, but at this point I'd gone from annoyed by the original problem to furious with the airline's general treatment of me so I called back once more. This time the person was a little better. She recognized that the problem was beyond her capacity to fix and so she transferred me - to a customer support specialist in Chicago.
So here's the thing with outsourcing: apparently they'd outsourced a year ago, and I'd never noticed before. If that's the case, I guess it was working. But in my more recent phone calls it was definitely not working. The lack of ownership and complete indifference to the mission of the company (e.g., not pissing off the customers) resulted in them working at cross-purposes with it. As I told the woman in Chicago, I missed the days when it was the employee/owners who you dealt with because of that sense of pride. But as long as the outsourced people could at least fake that level of interest it would have been ok…
I had a nice, long conversation with that woman who took down all the information and affirmed my sense that something had indeed gone awry in these conversations. Which absolutely saved me as a customer. I already had my 25,000 miles for the year, and I was ready to walk away. Possibly forever. Because I was livid. I have all this loyalty invested with them, but after these phone calls I no longer believed that I could trust them with my business. It's not just that there was the situation with the original seat SNAFU (which still takes the fun out of traveling, because without predictability it becomes very stressful - too stressful to do very much of), but that I was losing faith in the company's willingness and ability to do right by its customers.
All because they outsourced.
Since then I've had better conversations on the phone. The woman also gave me a direct number to Chicago if I ever encountered further recalcitrance. But the airline got off easy. I really wasn't that difficult a customer (I really could not understand why they were so willing to take a small problem and turn it into a big one…) and I really didn't want to leave United, but I was on the precipice. Imagine how many they may have lost when the customers they antagonized were not so loyal.
Meanwhile, as a postscript, it's also worth noticing that they outsourced the web site functionality too. And that was equally a mistake. Because the woman I ended up talking to over there, who was allegedly going to try to diagnose my seat-displacement problem, thought that an effective problem solving method would be for me to give her my username and PASSWORD(!!!!) so she could login as me and poke around. Um, no…. (And for what it's worth, the callback they most reluctantly agreed to make to inform me of the status of the fix has still never occurred. So I still have no idea of what the problem was or if it was corrected, and will be left to find out the hard way.)
Anyway, the moral of this story is that outsourcing is not the panacea that it's often made out to be. It's not that it can't ever work, but it has to be done with the utmost care. Otherwise it will be the Achilles heel of the company. While it may seem like it's just a matter of getting cheap labor for basic tasks, they are not tasks that the company can afford to have done badly lest it risk losing the lifeblood of the company - its customers.