From Where I Sit...There Are a Lot of Empty Seats

I flew United for the first time in a decade last week. It was a lesson in customer as well as candidate experience I won't forget anytime soon.

The customer service people were very nice. When I stepped up before boarding and told them I normally fly Continental- had in fact booked my ticket through Continental but my mileage (50-100k per year for the last decade) and status weren't highlighted on the ticket as they should be and then asked whether 1st class had all checked in, the rep just smiled, added my mileage, welcomed me to United and gave me a complimentary seat in a row that purportedly had 5" more leg room, a seat you would otherwise have to pay an additional $39 to get. I thanked him by name and, later, did what I normally do, sent a nice email about him to a corporate customer service address.

Still, the added cost to get a better seat was news to me.

I was flying to LA, CA from Newark, NJ....6 hours.

As I passed first class it was obvious the plane was empty. Only 4 of twelve seats in 1st class were filled. Odd I thought. At Continental, folks with enough mileage are automatically upgraded. There is never an empty seat.

The first 12 rows, 6 across were the "special' economy seats. I had row 12 which was also an exit row. Even more room. Yeah!

Then I noticed there were only 5 people in these first 72 seats.

However, I counted more than 60 people filling the next 12 rows- many were packed three across. I'm only guessing here but my extra leg room probably came from somewhere and it was pretty clear from the groans where that was.

As the crew shut the doors and the plane began taxiing, the first announcement was not about safety... as it usually is. No, the first announcement made by the stewardess was that

"the people [5] in the first 12 rows have paid extra and so moving up to the 'better' seats' is not an option without first paying.

"However", the stewardess noted, "the crew would be happy to take your money when we are in the air."

There were no comments or jokes from the peanut gallery. Just glares...for 6 (6) (six) hours. 60 people seated in the last 12 rows were able to view 12 near-empty rows in economy (not to mention a first class that was 2/3 empty... for 6 solid hours. No one moved up. (And No, I didn't move back in solidarity.)

Could the crew have invited the 5 passengers who supposedly paid for their upgrade to move into first class and the remainder to spread out? Too obvious? Apparently not to United. But then, perhaps I'm biased as a potential recipient of that move up to first class.

I will however send this link to the new President of the Continental/United merger. If Continental adopts United's practices this is one 100k customer seeking another airline.

Lessons learned.

- It pays to be friendly.
- Friendly isn't enough when the process is flawed.
- If you know the process is flawed and you just follow the rules, your firm will go bankrupt.
- If one customer/candidate is unsatisfied, you most certainly miscounted. There are many, many more.

As Recruiters, we would be advised to look beyond our well-stroked egos and consider the job-seekers who sit patiently staring at those empty seats without the courtesy of knowing what it would cost to upgrade or whether those with better qualifications have already checked in.

Views: 166

Comment by pam claughton on June 14, 2010 at 9:35am
Very interesting post. Sounds like the United folks could learn from reading a book I just bought, by the CEO of Zappos, which like Nordstrom, is known for their legendary customer service. It's called Delivering Happiness by Tony Hsieh and the general premise is to strive to consistently exceed expectations.

United missed a huge opportunity here, if they'd done as you suggested they could have gained tremendous goodwill and perhaps some new loyal customers. Instead, many like you just did, will spread the word in a negative way. I forget the exact number, but there's an old saying that a happy customer might tell one or two people about their experience, but an unhappy customer will tell 10x more.
Comment by Kate Lewis on June 14, 2010 at 12:30pm
It really is a pity to see United forget their customers are real live people. I agree with Gerry that they missed a huge opportunity to win over some long-term customers. Procedures exist for good reason, but it becomes counter-productive to choose the procedure over the customer.
Comment by Joshua Letourneau on June 14, 2010 at 2:14pm
Gerry, I believe your message is more about a Recruiting lesson than a quick look into United's broken processes.

We could go many places with this, but what immediately comes to mind is how most Career sites operate . . . as well as most organization's social media presence.

Applying for a position (at which point you receive the "thank you for your submission, but due to application volume, we cannot respond to every resume. if there is a match, we will contact you...") and then not hearing back for 3 months is somewhat like what you're describing. However, the difference is that the lack of contact is not transparent to all other applicants, right? Sure, WOM travels, but the 3/10 ratio Pam mentions isn't magnified because of the lack of transparency . . .

Now consider an applicant who messages an organization's Twitter 'Careers' handle (or posts on the Careers FB Fan Page), at which point everyone else can see the lack of reply (i.e. the "empty seats.")

You've illuminated the problem we too often see today - we build a ball field (social media presence), yet when people come to it, there is nobody selling hot dogs or peanuts . . . . and as a result, all our efforts can be for naught.
Comment by Gerry Crispin on June 14, 2010 at 5:10pm
All good points but you hit the nail Josh. No matter how skilled you are as recruiter, if the candidate sees seats going empty, your efforts are for naught.
Comment by Omowale Casselle on June 14, 2010 at 6:19pm

Great post. Based on what is seen, candidates can begin to infer a lot about your organization. Lack of communication can make the imagination run wild about the processes within an employer.

I love Josh's reference to unresponsive Twitter handles or FB fan pages. At least when you apply online, an organization can be given the benefit of the doubt about the length of time between application and response. But, if you choose to be present on social media; the empty seats are obvious.

Omowale Casselle
Comment by Charles Van Heerden on June 14, 2010 at 8:45pm
Hi Gerry, great story to remind us to always put ourselves in the shoes (or seat) of the client/applicant. Unfortunately, sometimes lessons learnt seem to go out of the window as soon as business picks up and we return to normal business...

If companies empower their staff more, I am sure they would be too happy to apply a sensible approach. What a wasted opportunity and negative reinforcement, which also seems to happen every day in recruitment (as Josh expanded on) when we fail to connect with applicants resulting in poor recruitment experiences, and Rayanne - I fully agree we need to want to!
Comment by Maureen Sharib on June 15, 2010 at 2:19am
I'm surprised flights are still flying so empty. How many flights a day does Continental/United fly LA to Newark? I say fix the economics of the matter and some of the processes will smooth themselves.
Did You Know?
160,426 seats are available per day to fly out of Los Angeles, CA connecting to Newark, NJ
Continental has the most nonstop flights between Newark, NJ and Los Angeles, CA.
Scandinavian has 3 one stop flights between Los Angeles, CA and Newark, NJ.
The largest aircraft operated by Shanghai flying between Los Angeles, CA and Newark, NJ is a 757 with 182 seats.
The shortest flight between Los Angeles, CA and Newark, NJ on US Airways is 2,455 miles.
367 flights per week fly out of Los Angeles, CA connecting to Newark, NJ
Chicago, IL is the most popular connection for one stop flights between Los Angeles, CA and Newark, NJ.
11 airlines operate between Los Angeles, CA and Newark, NJ
The smallest aircraft operated by Delta flying between Los Angeles, CA and Newark, NJ is a ERJ with 44 seats.


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