Why price does not drive quality service (or how United Airlines still hasn’t solved their mistake) 

 October 16, 2017

By  Pascal Depuhl

How two brands solved their mistake (or not)

(and why a third brand actually solved a mistake that wasn't theirs)

Have you ever made a mistake? How about one that directly impacted one of your customers, clients or guests? We've all made mistakes, but it's how you deal with them that's the real important issue.

You'd think the more money you spend the better service (and the faster mistake resolution) you would receive. Well, turns out nothing could be farther from the truth. Let me tell you my experience with two airlines I had last month. Both are US carriers. Both made mistakes. However, that's really where the similarities end. 

If you know anything about providing good service to your customers, then you know that mistakes are one of the best opportunities to make a positive impression on your customers. Actually it's not the mistakes, but how you handle them that makes or breaks the relationship with your client. 

[Side note: Ever since I've heard Horst Schulze, the former CEO of the Ritz-Carlton, speak about service (read more on that in "What I learned about service from a wise hotelier"), I've become very interested in watching how the brands I use provide customer service and am working hard to build a customer service focused company myself.]

Mistake #1: United Airlines loose my bag for 7 days

United Airlines mistake turns into a major hassle for their customer

United Airlines mistake turns into a major hassle.

Mistake #1: I booked a business class ticket to Asia on United Airlines (@United). Price of the ticket $2,445.76. Multiply that by three for the rest of the team that is flying with me and we're spending close to $7,500.- on that flight. When we arrive in Saigon 5 out of 6 checked bags don't make it. Even though they are tagged 'Premiere Service' and are supposed to be off the aircraft before any other bags. 2 days later 4 out of the 5 missing bags make it to the hotel, but the 5th bag -one of my bags- takes a full week to get to my hotel. But it's not the mistake that makes me upset with United Airlines.

Mistake #2: Spirit doesn't issue promised travel vouchers

Mistake #2: I booked a flight for my wife and daughter to evacuate before a hurricane hits Florida on Spirit Airlines (@SpiritAirlines). Price of both ticket $318.11. Their connecting flight in Houston is overbooked, so they decide to give up their seats for a free travel voucher and a flight later that day. Houston had just been hit by a hurricane a few days earlier, and Spirit's systems are down, so all of this is being done by hand. When my wife checks a few days later, there are no travel vouchers to her name and the call center tells her that their records indicate she was on the Spirit flight, even though Spirit paid for a change to fly them on United. 

It's not the mistake that gets you

OK, like I said mistakes happen - we all make them - it's in how you solve them that makes the difference. In the interest of full disclosure, I personally have made the exact mistake that United had made, when I worked for an airline in college. I routed a bag onto the wrong flight and my boss at the time sat me down once they figured out what had happened and explained to me the inconvenience I had caused one of their customers. I never made that mistake again.




"A key principle in fixing a problem is to resolve the customer's sense of injustice–of having been wronged or let down." write Leonardo Inghiller and Michah Solomon in their book Exceptional Service, Exceptional Profit: The secret of building a five-star customer service organization. "You can find a way yo restore the smile to almost any customer's face, wether it's a free upgrade or a more creative offering.

Let's look at how these two companies address their mistakes. On the face of these two examples, you would think that United would be much more interested to solve a mistake they made to a $7500 customer than Spirit would want to solve a mistake they made to a $300 customer. Well I was surprised too. Here's what happened:


How United Airlines (still hasn't) fixed their mistake

Mistake #1: I get in touch with United via Twitter and let them know that my bag is missing. "We understand your frustration and perception that we don't want to help …" is one of the DMs I get after a few days of United Airlines telling me it's not their fault that my bag is not on their plane, but still sitting in Newark.

Turns out the bag never made it onto the plane. In the mean time United has gone to their baggage area and called me to let me know that my name and phone number are on the bag in Newark, but that it's their partner airlines fault (the one we flew the last leg in Asia on) and I need to file a claim with that airline, since they flew the last leg of the journey on them. Oh, ok - wait what? 

United airlines doesn't care about solving their mistake

This is probably one of the worst ways you can handle a mistake as a company:

  1. Say it's not my fault.
  2. Tell your customer that you don't care to resolve the problem.
  3. Blame someone else who is clearly not at fault.

To this day (a month later) United has still not fixed this problem. And you will quickly learn that merely making the mistake right, i.E. getting the bag into my possession is not enough to make a happy customer. 

How Spirit fixed their mistake (and blew me away)

Mistake #2: I get in touch with Spirit via Twitter and let them know that my wife was promised a travel voucher and that their call center has told me that she is not getting one. "I reached out to the airport supervisors for more information …" Spirit DMs me, but they are told that my wife was on the plane.

I tweet her, that I can dig up the United flight info that my wife and daughter actually flew on and here is where everything changes.

"No need - I believe you!" is the answer from the Spirit representative. Six minutes later she apologizes and has created the travel vouchers that my wife and daughter were promised. In addition to that she has added $100 vouchers for any additional services. 

Spirit quickly fixes their mistake

This is probably one of the best ways to handle a mistake as a company:

  1. Admit your mistake and apologize.
  2. Tell your customer that they matter and that you care deeply about solving their problem.
  3. Fix it fast and throw in something extra to let your customer know you care. 

Spirit Airlines fixed the problem in under 24 hours from the initial inquiry on Twitter. And it's funny, but I am a much bigger fan of Spirit's solution than I am of United. 

Actions have consequences

Which airline do you think I will recommend to my friends? 

Does the price I paid for the service make a difference in how a mistake is solved? (Obviously United has more profit to play with on a $7500 transaction and Spirit has on a $300 dollar one.) 

Do you think I will fly United again, if there is any other alternative? 

Surprise: the brand that fixed United Airlines mistake (spoiler alert: it was not United)

I do not believe that I would have received my bag at all, if there had not been a third brand in this story. Enter the Park Hyatt in Saigon. I think we can all agree that they had absolutely nothing to do with United's mishandling of my bag. 

However those guys understand service. One of their guests was inconvenienced. And they did not stop calling the airport, the baggage claim office, United Airlines, it's partner airline, until the bag was lying in my room. 

The Park Hyatt finally fixed the mistake that wasn't theirs

Talk about amazing service. How do you think I feel about the Park Hyatt, where they solved a mistake and made it right for their guest, although they had nothing to do with United's screw up. 

This is probably the only way you can beat correctly solving a problem as a company. Solve the ones that are not your fault.

  1. The Park Hyatt apologized that my bag was not at the hotel - everyday for a week.
  2. They cared deeply that there was a problem and they took full ownership, even though the problem was not caused my them.
  3. The hotel's employees did not stop, until the problem was solved. 

Now that is going above and beyond what is expected, but that also creates a guest who will be loyal to your brand.

How do you handle a mistake?

How do you serve your customers, when you make a mistake? 

How far do you go to take ownership of the problems other brands cause your customer, client or guest? 

  • Johnny,

    Boy, that’s a tough one. (Kudos on doing it right on the first two though :) I’m not sure how to change the culture of the third store you help manage. All I know is that Ritz-Carlton studied how much more money engaged, i.E. happy, customers spend on average. You know what they found out? If you increase the level of engagement by 4% those customers will spend 40% more money. You can check this out in “The New Gold Standard: 5 Leadership Principles for Creating a Legendary Customer Experience Courtesy of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company

  • Currently I manage three different businesses, each one is diverse and demanding. Being the owner of two out of three of these, a big portion of my time is dedicated to customer/client satisfaction. As for my two businesses we work hard to assure that our customers/clients are happy, I never mind going that extra mile for them. The third company that I manage is a mom and pop corporation, (if you can wrap your head around that) and they balk at giving extra”anything to anyone for any reason. This makes satisfying the customer extremely difficult at times and I usually am thrown under the bus at the end of the day or whenever it is all said and done.
    The owners want me to use the “admit nothing, deny everything, and demand proof” theory when handling customers. What does one do in this kind of situation? All I can offer is get it in writing! If it’s not in writing it never happened!

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    Pascal Depuhl

    Miami product photographer, video producer, cinematographer and chief mindchanger at Photography by Depuhl I love to share the knowledge I've gained over the past two decades. Catching light in motion.