Assessing customer service at its weakest point: United Vs. SPG on customer service


There are many ways to assess customer service.  One way that I recently experienced is by trying to procure “free” or “awarded” travel and lodging.  I wanted to blog about this because I thought “free” was a good measurement of how companies would treat their non-paying customers.  My theory is that service can be gauged by its potentially weakest link. 

A personal case study

A week ago, I was presented the opportunity to attend the PM360 2010 Trailblazer Awards in Manhattan, NY.  As a member of PM360’s Editorial Board, I was happy to accept this invitation to witness marketing excellence and network with a selective group of people. Unfortunately for me, my budget was tight after two family vacations this year.  So I decided to use award travel to fund my needs. 

I turned to United because I have been a customer since 1992.  I don’t use them exclusively, but over the 18 years I have accumulated over 400,000 miles.  I earned a “Free Travel Voucher” from them, with a 1-year expiration date back in February, so I wanted to leverage that voucher. 

Here’s a summary of my experience with United:

  • Could not book free travel via web directly
  • The website did not have a specific phone number for “free” travel, so I called the general number
  • Spent 20 minutes through a voice recognition system, asking me what dates and times, only to frustrate me and I eventually punched the “0”… after asking me if I wanted to participate in a survey, which I answer “no” I was routed somewhere and there was radio silence for 3-4 minutes after which I hung up [reflecting back on this, it’s sad that this voice recognition is how they treat their paying customers… yikes!]
  • Re-dialed the general 800#, immediately pressed “0,” got live operator who did not have access to my information (acct number, address, e-mail, etc.)
  • The operator was difficult to understand, I had to repeat the spelling of my name 4 times (I know my name is hard to spell) and my address a couple times
  • She did book a flight, but told me I had to get “ticketed.”   I was given 2 options
    • 1) drive to the nearest airport within the next 24 hours and waste 2 hours of my life  or
    • 2) mail in the voucher along with all other information to a PO Box.  I chose option 2 and was told it would take 2-3 weeks for me to receive my ticket. 


Words to describe my brand experience are: Bureaucracy, confusing, uncoordinated, staunchly, anxious (to get my ticket). 

What disappointed me most is the fact that they did not have my profile on line… it really made the experience so 1980.  I hope the United/Continental merger brings flyers better service. 

For lodging, I happen to have joined the SPG hotel program this June.  At the time they had a promotion where I earned a free night.  The hotel where I stayed was priced at $129/night.  I only stayed 3 nights in their franchise. 

Here’s a summary of my experience with SPG:

  • Could not book via web directly, but that’s where the similarities ended
  • The website offered a 1-800# exclusively for awarded lodging
  • Live operator answered within 45 seconds
  • Her timeliness caught me by surprise and I did not have all the pertinent information… she hand-held me through the process, searching for the best location in Manhattan
  • Within 2 minutes she landed me a reservation at Le Parker Meridien New York, which starts at $429/night!  I couldn’t believe it…. I was expecting to staying in NJ in a hotel similar to the price I paid… this completely “wow-ed” me
  • Then, she quickly accessed my profile, did not have to identify myself beyond a pass word
  • E-mailed me the confirmation while I was still on the phone
  • She was courteous, easy to understand, used customer friendly tones and words (i.e. you are very welcome).


Words to describe the experience: Delighted, positively surprised, progressive, welcomed.


So what does this have to do with marketing?


EVERYTHING.  This is not a rant or a whine; eventually I received what I was looking for, more than anything I’m attempting to communicate marketing take-a-ways from my experience.  The experience we feel as consumers reflects the brand positioning.  Even in areas where customers are not “purchasing,” we should be mindful of our communications.  As a matter of fact, I hereby propose that we should measure our service brand promise at the seemly weakest points.  If it can pass the brand position test at those perceived weak areas, it stands the strength of the brand. 

Here’s a test, in your company and for your brand try the “returns” or “free give away” or even “discontinue” departments, your experience will tell you just what communications you are sending to your valued customers.

Good marketing!

Ramiro Roman



3 thoughts on “Assessing customer service at its weakest point: United Vs. SPG on customer service”

  1. United never intended for a program designed to reward frequent travel to be a negative experience for their best and most loyal customers. Obviously. The fact that it is just that is really sad. It is a safe bet that when United was a leading airline (brand promise of “friendly skies”) and my personal favorite airline, that cashing in miles for free travel was much easier. The interesting question becomes, can United turn a weakness into a strength by introducing a new reward program that is easy and fun to use. Not bold enough? How hard would it be for marketing at United to suggest abolishing the reward program and replacing it with services and pricing options that customers really want or need?

  2. Good assessment. I couldn’t agree more. I have been an SPG gold member and effortlessly redeemed numerous rewards over the last few years. In fact I have even booked air travel with my SPG points. Their customer experience is second to none, which is the most powerful marketing message you can make.

    United on the other hand has no idea how to create a loyal community base. Rewards that are complex to redeem are in essence worthless and thus loyalty has no benefit (can you hear the old credit card marketer in me coming out). I have little preference for air carrier as it unfortunately comes down to cheapest and most direct. And I expect a mediocre experience as part of the standard package.

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