Videocall terminals, with scanners and printers, for customer service

I just went through a hellish weekend at the hands of United Airlines, trying to change planes at Dulles on Saturday, and not getting to California until Monday. I wasn’t alone, and while I do wish to vent at the airline, there are things that could have been better with a bit of new thinking.

As flights were canceled or delayed, and planes filled up, for most customers the only answer was the customer service centers inside the terminals. These quickly had lines of hundreds of people with waits of several hours. In some cases, just for simple transactions like getting a hotel voucher because you had been moved to the next day. (While it is possible to get such vouchers at the ticketing desks outside the secure area, Dulles is not an easy airport to move around, and people were reluctant to take the shuttles to the master terminal and leave the secure area without knowing their fate.)

Among the many things the airline is to be faulted for is having no real way to deal with the huge numbers of customers who need service when a cascading problem occurs. Multi-hour waits simply don’t cut it. The answer lies in extending the facilities of the self-service kiosks. At those kiosks you can do basic check-in, changes of seating and some other minor changes. You go up, put in your card or confirmation number, and you can do some transactions. You can also pick up the phone and talk to an agent sitting in their Nova Scotia call center. The kiosk has a printer that can print boarding passes. Unfortunately the agents are not empowered to do more than help you with what the kiosk can do. They can’t be like the other customer service agents and rebook flights or issue vouchers.

When you have a big company like an airline, that may suddenly need hundreds of agents for one trouble spot, video kiosks with printers (and scanners) seem like a great idea. Stations could be installed where customers can come and talk to an agent by videocall. They can feed documents into scanners or show them to the camera. They can feed documents into hoppers that will destroy them if that’s needed. And a more full printer could print them any documents they need — boarding passes, tickets, hotel, food and transportation vouchers. In fact, unless agents have to physically handle luggage or control who gets on a plane, they don’t need to be right there at all.

Of course this is not as personal as a live human in front of you. But it’s much better than a phone agent (and lots of listening to Rhapsody in Blue.) And, if the need arises, you can suddenly have 100 agents serving a problem area instead of 5, and focus the on-site agents on on-site problems.

Of course, the scanners and printers are only needed at rare intervals during the transactions, so another approach would be to let people have a combined web/videocall experience on any laptop computer, and to contract with the providers of airport wifi service to make access to the airline’s support website a free feature. Do that and suddenly there can be a thousand customer service videoconference tools in an airport that needs one. (They can all show video, and a growing number of laptops can also send it.) A smaller bank of scanners and printers can handle the portions of the transaction that need that. For example, you contact customer service on the laptop and the agent tells you to line up at scanner #5 and scan your documents. Then you work out your problems, and the agent tells you to go to printer #3 and get your new documents. (Destruction of old documents can be handled by the machine or possibly an on-site agent who does little but that.)

In fact, a lot of the stuff done at airport gates could be done this way. All the hassling at the desk is easy to do remotely. Only the actual ushering onto the planes needs live people. It may be less personal but I would rather have this than standing in line for long periods. They key factor is the ability to move agents around to where they are needed in an instant, so that there is no waiting (and little wasted time by agents.)

Of course, agents can also be very far away. Though I would resist the temptation to make them too far away (like India.) Not that there aren’t good workers in India but too many companies fall for the temptation to get employees in India that are even cheaper than the good ones, and simply not up to the jobs they are given. The Nova Scotia crew were helpful and their distance was not a problem.

This principle can apply to conference and tradeshow registration as well. Why fly in staff to a remote tradeshow to do such jobs which tend to be quite bursty. Have local staff to man scanners and printers, and remote staff to talk on the videophone and solve my problems. It’s so much cheaper than the cost of transporting and housing staff.

Of course, you can also just plain have a good internet/web customer service center. But I’m talking here about the problem of people who are at your facility, and deserve more than that. They need a live person to solve their problems, they need to combine what they can do on the computer with what a skilled (and authorized) agent can make happen, and because they are on location and upset, and not just at home on the computer, they deserve the expense of a bit more money to provide good service.

Our own nightmare began with a canceled flight that, after 4 hours of delay, they let us board. Just as they were closing the doors the Captain announced, “Sorry, I’m over my time limit, I have to leave. Bye.” And that was it. People were faced with hours in line to get rebookings and hotel vouchers. We should have learned our lesson. We were bumped to 8:30pm the next day (but only given a hotel room good until 1pm) but we made the most of it. When we got to our 8:30pm flight we made our mistake, and volunteered to be bumped again from the oversold flight, because we were told we would get the next flight, in better seats. The agent who told us that abandoned our transaction mid-stream when ordered to handle another gate, so we ended up again with the hours-long service line and even worse seats! We take some responsibility for volunteering, but had we realized it would be a repeat of the nightmare rather than a quick trip to a nice hotel and a relaxing meal, we certainly would never have done it.

While I do blame the airline for the things that were its fault (including not paying attention to how long pilots had left on their clock) what I really blame is not being ready for problems and able to handle them. Flight cancellations, delays and full flights are not unexpected problems. They know they will happen.

While it's absolutely true

While it's absolutely true that the people who run airlines know that all sorts of problems can happen, it's even more true that they don't care enough about their paying customers to waste good money on the non-value-added resources necessary to handle the problems. They know that airline passengers have no real alternative to flying, and that their competitors care as little about their customers as they do. So their solution for dealing with the inevitable problems is to let passengers stand in line for hours at optimally-lean-staffed counters. The Security Police can deal appropriately with any passenger who displays any inappropriate lack of respectful docility when, after waiting for hours, the optimally-lean-staffed counter clerk informs him or her that the next available flight is in three days, and until then you're free to stay in a hotel and buy meals at your own expense since the airline has no liability or responsiblity for the delay-- NEXT! Airline executives know that no matter how furious a passenger may become as a result of such shabby treatment, that passenger will almost certainly be back in line in the near future to wait with resigned docility for another round.

Airlines exist exclusively to provide their shareholders with an attractive return on their investment, and particularly to provide their top executives with millions of dollars of well-deserved annual bonuses. That is best accomplished by running a lean, efficient operation in which every airplane is fully packed on every flight. Any margin for the inevitable glitches is best fully borne by the passengers, since any money wasted on unused capacity for handling surge or error conditions is money stolen from the pockets of executives and shareholders.

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