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Simon Says

Simon Says

Ever notice how often you feel like you need a holiday at the end of your holidays?

My much-needed summer holiday was going fine when I flew from hopping around South Africa's wine country to visit family in the US. To squeeze more out of our budget, we even added a layover in order to qualify for a round-the-world ticket. So off we flew from Cape Town to Johannesburg to London to Washington DC to Rochester, New York.

Resisting the urge to watch Dodge Ball and Spiderman 2 more than once, I even ratcheted up my knowledge reading the Harvard Business Review that United Airlines so kindly provided.

Despite enduring more security checks than a Baghdad voter, I finally landed safe and sound, but no surprise to learn that my luggage didn't. Not to worry, I was assured, fill out the forms and your bags will arrive between 8am and 12noon.

By 11am the next day I was getting a bit antsy. I was meeting my sister for lunch and my travelling wardrobe was, shall we say, limited. I figured I'd better ring United and find out the ETA of my suitcase. Little did I know I was about to enter IVR Hell. (And, by the way, Satan has changed his name to Simon.)

First off, I've got to tell you that IVR technology is really, really good these days. I was able to navigate Simon's instructions easily and the voice response was superb. This call pretty much left me back at square one: Via the prompts a recorded message (not my friend Simon) informed me that "my luggage would be delivered sometime between 8am and 12pm.

Fast forward to 12:15pm, and it is once more time to ring Simon. This time I chose the option to speak to someone at the service desk. Simon switched me, and a recorded message apologized, said all the operators were busy, suggested I try again - and then hung up on me.

Hmm, I thought, this has to be a mistake (usually I have to actually speak to someone before they hang up on me). Surely, I was supposed to go into a queue. So I rang Simon again. Same result. After two more tries I realized that United did in fact not want me to connect with a real person and this was their way of making sure I didn't. Totally frustrated I even tried finding a number I could ring in the phone book. There was only a reservations number, which I tried, but that was also an IVR. Aghhhhhhh!!!

My luggage did finally arrive around 4pm. And in those four hours, United managed to lose a customer who was ready to become a satisfied and loyal customer because somewhere somehow someone thought that hanging up on customers with problems was a good way to help the company climb out of bankruptcy.

In the December Harvard Business Review that United so kindly provided on the flight, Jeffrey Rayport and Bernard Jaworski wrote: "Be it human or machine, every service interface must deliver high levels of customer-perceived value relative to the competition, so that customer satisfaction and loyalty rise sufficiently to drive superior financial returns."

Maybe it's time someone at United read the magazines they distribute.

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