Areas of Unrest
14 March 2001 - Why Spring Clips Are Evil or a Rant About Customer Service
QOTD: "There is more pleasure in building castles in the air than on the ground." - Edward Gibbon
Reading: Eric Garcia, Anonymous Rex. Plus I am still reading about medieval private life and I have yet to entirely finish Sunday's L.A. Times.
Listening to: Outback, Dance the Devil Away
I hadn't thought much about spring clips until a few days ago, when I chanced to hear a news story about prison labor in China. Most spring clips are made by women in Chinese prisons. They are entirely unpaid for their work unlike prison laborers in the U.S. who receive minimum wage. The work of twisting the wires into the right shape and attaching them leaves their hands bloody and scarred. You who use spring clips also have blood on your hands.
My point is that everything we do has consequences - a notion that seems to have been lost in the deterioration of customer service in recent years. More and more often I find myself trying to purchase something, only to be reminded of the old joke in which a father takes his son to a department store. The boy asks, "how many people do you think work here?" and the father answers, "oh, about half of them." A classic example was my experience a few years back with getting a piece of needlepoint framed. The canvas has a lot of brown and tan, but I really wanted to pick up one of the minor colors (either a dark green or one of two shades of blue) in the mat. I told the clerk this and had to repeat it at least 50 times while she kept showing me mats in browns. I finally got her to show me what I asked for and settled on a blue and she saw my point, but I swore never to take another piece of needlework there. (By the way, this particular incident is on my mind because I went on to find a place with help that did know how to listen, but they've closed recently, so I am once again looking around. But that's another matter.)
My particularly egregious customer service story of the week involves business travel. First, the travel agent ignored my request and had me going into Denver and driving down to Colorado Springs and it hadn't occurred to my secretary that she needed to double check them so I didn't learn this until I got my tickets on Monday. She corrected the error when I pointed it out to her, though it took another go round to actually get the flights I'd asked for in the first place. (My meeting was scheduled to end at 4:30, so a 4:39 flight was somewhat unreasonable. Sheesh - did they think I'd asked for the 6:03 because I like getting home late?) By then, Avis had no cars available in the Springs, so they reserved a car with Dollar. That would have been fine had my flight been anywhere close to on time. Instead, my 12:30 flight from LAX to Denver was delayed until 2:30. I had the foresight to stop by customer service once I saw this, since there was no way I could make my original connecting flight. The customer service agent insisted she should put me on the 5:55 flight to the Springs, and couldn't understand why I objected. (Essentially, this would be impossible to catch. If the plane left right at 2:30, it would land in Denver at 5:30, due to the time zone change. It takes 15 minutes to get off the plane and you can't make it between gates in 10 minutes in Denver. As it was, we didn't even get to the gate in Denver at 6:15.) The 7:10 was oversold but she put me on standby for it and insisted I would have no problem getting on. I wasn't that concerned, since there are lots of flights and I figured I'd get something.
I called Marcia and told her that getting together for dinner was unlikely. As I said, we got to Denver at 6:15 and I headed down to the United Express gate for the Colorado Springs flight. The 7:10 was, indeed, oversold and all they could offer was just to wait and see. They didn't get any standby passengers on it at all. They they told me that the 8:10 was also oversold and that I should go all the way to the other end of the terminal (gate 18 vs. gate 61) and see if I could get on the 8:55 flight.
Fortunately, I was bright enough to stop by customer service. Who told me I was actually confirmed on the 8:10 flight. Which neither the customer service agent at LAX or the person who put me on the standby list for the 7:10 flight bothered to tell me. Not that they actually could give me a boarding pass, but they kept insisting this was no problem. The customer service person said that, since I was confirmed, if they didn't find me a seat, they would have to ask for volunteers to get bumped.
United's published policy is that if you haven't checked in 20 minutes before the flight, your seat is released. They also claim that if you aren't on board ten minutes before departure, your reservation is cancelled. Now, it isn't like I really want them to follow their policies most of the time since I've had more than one mad dash to catch a connecting flight. But they've got to lie a little more convincingly than they did. At 8:04, the 8:10 flight was listed as "on time," although boarding hadn't yet begun. At 8:15, they switched the time to 8:35. The gate agent insisted he couldn't give me a boarding pass until they started boarding because "we don't know who has checked in." This makes no sense, whatsoever, since the system is computerized and they can release seats. Then he said, "there are 32 people confirmed and the plane has 32 seats, so I can't give you a seat." I pointed out that I was confirmed so this made even less sense. If he'd said something like, "we don't know how many people will miss their connection because 80% of our flights are late," he would have been far closer to the truth. I did eventually get a boarding pass, but another person who was confirmed did not and they did not ask for volunteers. So it looks like they violated their own rules at least two ways in this fiasco.
Before I go on to the next fiasco, he was also dealing with another flight having been cancelled. That one was to Vail and they were holding the earlier flight there to get as many people as possible on. Unfortunately their uniforms have closed toes, so they can't count quite high enough and miscounted how many available seats there actually were and sent ten too many people down, without boarding passes, and with instructions to take any available seat. When they realized this, they called for volunteers to give up their seats. They got nine volunteers, then waited several minutes without a tenth volunteer. The gate agent got on the microphone and announced, "if we don't get a tenth volunteer, we're going to cancel the entire flight." Their motto is "United rising" but I didn't think that was supposed to mean rising to silly threats.
But, as I was saying, I did get on the 8:10 flight, which managed to leave at about 8:45. And it's just a short hop down to the Springs. I went to pick up my rental car. The woman at Dollar told me "oh, you were more than two hours late, so we cancelled your reservation. And we have no cars available." I pointed out that this policy had never been communicated to me, nor was it consistent with my past experiences. (I didn't bother saying this, but it is also bloody absurd given that flight delays of more than two hours are routine. And much of the time you can't call, since you are often hostage on a plane waiting on a taxiway for hours or, at a minimum, you have no idea when you will arrive.)
Ah, but the travel agent has an emergency number. This time, I was only on hold for 10 minutes - which is actually the shortest amount of time I've ever been on hold with them. They insisted that they had no idea about Dollar's policy and, in fact, the published policy said the reservation was cancelled after 24 hours, not after 2. And, oh, by the way, there wasn't a single rental car to be found in Colorado Springs. (This was probably true as there was some massive invasion of ice skaters. I believe ice skates are also manufactured by exploited Chinese prison labor, though I believe that only because I want to, not because of any actual evidence.) Back at the Dollar counter, I was told, "our branch is a franchise, not corporate owned, so we make our own rules." Never mind that there's no way to find whether or not a branch is corporate owned when you make your reservation.
This is similar to the "why I will never ever use Prime Time Airport Shuttle again " story, by the way. Prime Time advertises heavily "we're on time or you don't pay." They weren't on time. When I said, "you were thirty minutes late so I shouldn't have to pay," the driver insisted that policy applies only if you make your reservation 72 hours in advance - something they don't bother to advertise and hadn't happened to mention when I made my reservation 24 hours in advance. I paid largely because I'd have missed my flight if I pressed the point. Their response to my complaint letter was a form letter that appeared to be the only place the 72 hour policy was ever captured in writing.
Fortunately, I'd had fair success with my hotel reservation and was at a hotel with an airport shuttle. (And I only waited 25 minutes after they told me it would be 10, but that's par for the course with hotel shuttles in my experience.) And my meeting was nearby so it wasn't outrageous to take a taxi over in the morning, though I had to give the driver directions. I was able to get a lift back to the airport with one of my colleagues, so it worked out okay, and there were no problems with the return trip.
Should you have actually endured reading all this whining, here's the rant in brief, summary form. Customer service has become all but extinct, replaced by:
I'll take some minor pleasure in writing a few complaint letters. But I suspect that I should really take up writing the rare letter to commend good customer service. I'm far less likely to develop carpal tunnel syndrome that way.
Copyright 2001 Miriam H. Nadel
Send comments to: email@example.com