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June 5, 2023 | 5 Mins Read

What I’m Left Pondering About Service After My Recent Travel Woes

June 5, 2023 | 5 Mins Read

What I’m Left Pondering About Service After My Recent Travel Woes


By Sarah Nicastro, Creator, Future of Field Service

I shared on LinkedIn recently that I had a really tough time traveling from the U.S. to London. The experience was so poor that my gut reaction was to take “pen” to paper and document a tirade of each and every misstep. Thankfully, I knew better and waited until I was home, well rested, and had thought clearly about what had happened to write this because while I’ve no intent to blast the airline, I do think the experience is representative of an overall question service organizations really need to consider. That question is, how do we ensure we are balancing the truly impressive capabilities of automation with the irreplaceable human touch when it is indeed needed?

Let’s back up a step and I’ll share a bit of what happened before I get to the assessment and fundamental question it begs. I almost always fly United and was flying from Cleveland, Ohio (the large airport nearest me) to Newark and on to London Heathrow. We departed Cleveland 10 minutes late but made that time up in the air, landing in Newark on time. However, there was no gate for us to pull into so we sat on the runway for an hour and ten minutes until we could de-plane. By the time we did, I’d missed by 10:00 PM flight to London. I saw there was an 11PM flight, so I raced to the gate for that flight to see if I was able to take it – only to be greeted by an incredibly unfriendly (rude) employee. 

I did get a seat on that flight, and we boarded around 10:30PM and pulled away from the gate right on time. I was in a different cabin than what I’d booked but was just happy to be en route. After a few minutes of taxiing, however, we returned to the gate and the pilot said there was a light that indicated a mechanical issue that needed to be checked. It took quite some time for that to happen and by then there was an issue that once we were in the air the crew would time out. Long story short, we sat at the gate from shortly after 11PM until 4:30 in the morning at which point they cancelled the flight altogether. I went to a nearby hotel United offered to sleep for a couple of hours and regroup, having to juggle plans for work that I had in London for Monday. I had been rebooked onto an 8PM flight for Monday night, which was the next available, but by the time I woke up after a two-hour nap that flight had already been cancelled.

At this point I was losing faith that I would make it out of Newark on United on time, knowing at this point I had missed not only Monday’s work in London but also wouldn’t be arriving until sometime Tuesday with the Live Tour happening on Wednesday – so very little buffer. I won’t go into all of the details of the many hours I spent talking with United Monday morning, but I ultimately decided to fly Virgin Atlantic out of JFK because I had more confidence in that route. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to personally collect my luggage from United at Newark, so I had to have them return it to my home and leave for a 12-day trip to the U.K. and Paris without any luggage. That’s the overall synopsis (I should also mention that my return flight home from Paris, also United, was also delayed by two hours – but luckily, I made my connection). 

How Do We Balance Automation and Human Touch?

Now, that brings me to my less emotional assessment, so thanks for bearing with me! What I want to start with is the positive, which is United’s automated service through their app (and text if you have text enabled). Over the last couple of years, it has become truly impressive – the app will always alert you to gate changes, delays, arrival times, etc. faster than an employee or in-airport signage. It proactively works on fixing any issues, so for instance if it does look like you’ll miss a connection, it offers you next available flights and confirms your seat for you very proactively and reliably. I even had a time not long ago that my luggage somehow wasn’t loaded onto my connecting flight, and when we landed, I received a text apologizing and asking me to schedule delivery via the app – less than three minutes later, I had the claim created with delivery of the bag set to my home. 

I’m a pretty skeptical person, so I’ve really tested the app’s reliability – I remember on my way to Field Service Connect in Austin last year, my flight leaving Houston was cancelled and I didn’t trust the app so joined the line of dozens, maybe hundreds of customers waiting to speak to the on-site service staff. After more than an hour in line, they literally told me to use the app – and when I did, I realized I could’ve sorted things out in about ten minutes had I started there. From that point on, I have used the app exclusively and it has proven to be accurate, proactive, and reliable. 

This is a real-world example of how powerful automated service can be using today’s technology – and kudos to United for investing in keeping customers informed and ensuring the app can help improve resolution time when issues occur. 

Here’s the issue, though. When there’s an issue that does demand human intervention, in my recent experiences, the customer service is horrible. And this is an even more significant problem with the automation in place, because when a customer is calling in or waiting in line because they can’t resolve what they need to via the very capable app, they are probably quite frustrated and stressed. This is where human touch and empathy become incredibly important, something that seems to be truly lacking among the staff today. I had no fewer than ten interactions during this recent situation and each person treated me as though what was happening was my fault – absolutely no apology, empathy, or understanding. In fact, many of the employees argued facts with me or were downright rude. It was truly unacceptable. 

So, this begs the question to me of how we balance the really compelling increase of automation without losing the irreplaceable value of human touch when it is needed. There’s so much you can accomplish using United’s app today – and that’s really a helpful and convenient thing. But when you do need help beyond that automated service, the experience is truly subpar, and I think that’s not only a missed opportunity for them but a very important balance for all companies looking to increase automation to be aware of and work to achieve. 

What do you think?