James’s Musings

thoughts, photography, and geeky stuff
from an unrelentingly curious Silicon Valley entrepreneur

Tracking Bad Customer Service—LIVE!

by James G. Beldock on August 10, 2010

In my busi­ness life, I of­ten re­mind my team of how easy it is for a com­pa­ny to dam­age a long cus­tomer re­la­tion­ship due to a sin­gle in­stance of poor cus­tomer ser­vice. Now I have my own sto­ry to add to the list:

On Thursday of last week, I flew back to San Francisco from New York. As a reg­u­lar American Airlines pas­sen­ger (150,000 miles flown last year alone; 2.5 mil­lion ac­crued one way or an­oth­er since 1986), I know the air­line well and gen­er­al­ly have few, if any com­plaints. Even when three of my past five flights have been de­layed, I don’t find my­self com­plain­ing. It’s a hard busi­ness. Everyone loves to hate air­li­nes, and un­til last week, I had de­cid­ed to buck the trend and ac­tu­al­ly like an air­line, if on­ly be­cause it seems to me their busi­ness is a tough one and I re­spect their ef­forts to run it well. When I got to my of­fice on Thursday af­ter my flight, I dis­cov­ered I had left my iPad on the plane. Such stu­pid­i­ty is, of course, my fault and not the airline’s. It was a 6:45am flight from JFK, which re­quired my wak­ing up around 3:30am to get to JFK, and jammed as I was in­to a win­dow seat in coach, I slept fit­ful­ly through­out much of the flight. When we ar­rived in San Francisco, I was thus on­ly too ea­ger to get off. Without my iPad.

But thanks to the won­der­ful “Find My iPhone” func­tion of Apple’s MobileMe, I quick­ly es­tab­lished that my iPad was (and still is!) in Terminal 3 at SFO (the American and United ter­mi­nal), and I could even track where in the build­ing it was in re­al-time. I called American at the air­port, fig­ur­ing this was an easy prob­lem to solve. The iPad was beep­ing and dis­play­ing my tele­phone num­ber to any­one who found it, thanks to a mes­sage I sent it via Find My iPhone.

Nobody at American Airlines stepped up to help me solve the prob­lem. In fact, the peo­ple who have re­fused to take my call, call me back, or oth­er­wise be in touch are the cus­tomer ser­vice rep­re­sen­ta­tives at SFO. Here are some de­tails of the fol­ly:

  • The first per­son I spoke to, in bag­gage ser­vices, told me that the re­cov­ery of lost items was mere­ly a cour­tesy. She chas­tised me for los­ing my item (re­mind­ing me, for ex­am­ple, that an an­nounce­ment is made “twice, sir, to take your per­son­al items with you” when the plane reach­es the gate). She then hung up on me as I asked her what my oth­er op­tions were to get help. (Note: California Penal Code §485 dis­agrees with her in­ter­pre­ta­tion of her du­ties.1 Jason Chen from Gizmodo can at­test that the law took Apple’s side when he “re­cov­ered” a lost iPhone 4 ear­lier this year, for ex­am­ple, and Gizmodo re­al­ized the law re­quired them to re­turn the item to Apple.)
  • The next day, I drove back to the air­port and talked to every­one I could. I showed them the lo­ca­tion of my iPad us­ing my mo­bile phone (yes, it’s an iPhone :-)). I sent the miss­ing iPad mes­sage af­ter mes­sage and “beep sig­nal” af­ter “beep sig­nal.” Everyone was amazed at the cool tech­nol­o­gy, and in­deed, I have since spo­ken to many peo­ple who are very pleas­ant. Some even of­fer to help. None of them was a cus­tomer ser­vice rep­re­sen­ta­tive, and none took the ini­tia­tive to “own” the prob­lem and solve it.
  • Today (Monday), I had to fly out of SFO on American again, so of course I took the op­por­tu­ni­ty to walk around the ter­mi­nal and ask every­one I could about my lost iPad. I showed lots of peo­ple the lo­ca­tion of the iPad. I gave my busi­ness card to any­one who would talk to me (even a few who thought I was a nut­case). Still no phone calls—not even from some­one say­ing they haven’t found it yet, but they’re try­ing.

By now, I have left voice mail mes­sages for American Airlines Customer Service Managers at SFO sev­er­al times. No cus­tomer ser­vice rep­re­sen­ta­tive (man­ager or oth­er­wise) has ever called me.

All the while, I have kept in reg­u­lar con­tact with my iPad—via Apple’s Find My iPhone. It hasn’t run out of bat­tery yet, and it hasn’t moved. It’s still right there at SFO Terminal 3, beep­ing away when­ev­er I send it a mes­sage. It dis­plays my name and phone num­ber. All some­one needs to do is look at it and call me.

The ex­pe­ri­ence has left me with one pri­ma­ry ques­tion: af­ter all the voice­mails I have left and busi­ness cards I have hand­ed out, and given di­rect ev­i­dence that the de­vice is in their fa­cil­i­ty, why has no­body picked up the phone, called me, and tak­en the op­por­tu­ni­ty to turn this in­to a good cus­tomer ser­vice ex­pe­ri­ence for a very good cus­tomer? (Reminder, I fly about 150,000 miles a year with the­se peo­ple.) After all, I have made it clear to every­one I have spo­ken to that I am not blam­ing the airline—quite the con­trary, I’m the id­iot who left it on the plane. But we know where this thing is, and af­ter five days of no­body tak­ing re­spon­si­bil­i­ty for re­turn­ing it to me, the bur­den of re­spon­si­bil­i­ty for a bad ex­pe­ri­ence has shift­ed. It is not be­yond American Airlines to find a de­vice in their own se­cure area at their own ter­mi­nal when that de­vice can be tracked by GPS and made to emit a loud noise when­ev­er their cus­tomer tells it to.

All they have to do is call their cus­tomer.

up­date 8/11/2010: Believe it or not, the iPad still has bat­tery, six days lat­er. It’s still at SFO, still re­port­ing back to me. Despite this blog piece, and de­spite tweets with @AAirWaves and call­ing end­less­ly, no­body has yet called me, even to ex­plain that they’re still work­ing on it.

Be Sociable, Share!
  1. The per­ti­nent sec­tion of California Penal Code §485 reads: “One who finds lost prop­er­ty un­der cir­cum­stances which give him knowl­edge of or means of in­quiry as to the true own­er, and who ap­pro­pri­ates such prop­er­ty to his own use, or to the use of an­oth­er per­son not en­ti­tled there­to, with­out first mak­ing rea­son­able and just ef­forts to find the own­er and to re­store the prop­er­ty to him, is guilty of theft.” []
Haishi August 10, 2010 at 9:06 am

The airport is kind of a gray zone – the airlines don’t control the facility, and as you’ve lost your iPad (btw what happened to your Kindle? Do you have to have EVERY gadgets?) on an airplane, the airport people don’t feel obligated to solve your problem. This is indeed frustrating, especially when you can see where it is! Maybe you’ll have better chance to talk to security or management of the airport, not the airline. Anyway, hope you recover your iPad soon!

James G. Beldock August 11, 2010 at 3:30 pm

Stanley!! I agree entirely. What a complete pain in the neck. By the way, the iPad is still there, still responding to me. Nobody has returned it yet…..

Lo Szabo August 16, 2010 at 10:54 pm

What a story! It always amazes me how bureaucratic airports became all over the world. Remember when you where allowed to walk to your plane on the tarmac? (No, I am not that old…)

I have the 3G-less iPad, so mine would be lost unless it connects to a free WLAN.

Mike Arnot August 25, 2010 at 8:50 pm

Terrific story and couln’t agree more on the importance of customer service. As an alternative to the airline wouldn’t airport security be interested in tracking your ipad down?

Rafael September 14, 2010 at 7:22 am

I can only imagine how frustrating this must have been; I can see the frustration building up as more and more attempts to get customer service (of any company) to empathize with your (easily resolvable) situation yielded no results. Any how, my response is related to a couple of your comments leading up to your story.
1. “I often remind my team of how EASY it is for a company to DAMAGE a long customer relationship due to a single instance of poor customer service.”
TRUE. On the other hand, I frequently remind my team the opposite, that is, how easy it is to STRENGTHEN a long customer relationship due to a single instance of GOOD customer service. It’s beyond me how things can get to this point; my guess is that there is a disconnect between the people rendering the service and the people managing the company (do the executives know how customers are treated more often than not? and why?). These instances of poor customer services are somehow “tolerated” in most B2C businesses (and yes, specially in the airline business), where they wrongly believe that solving incidencies is more expensive than (not) dealing with a complaint. Yet, in B2B companies, one customer service mistake can have very damaging consequences, while anticipating such incidences, and better yet, finding a quick and satisfactory resolution, can yield great benefits to the relationship.
2. “…decided to love an airline…if only because it seems to me their business is a tough one and I respect their efforts to run it well”. This is my biggest quibble: precisely because it’s such a tough business and because they (supposedly) put a lot of effort to run it well, how can they f#*k up in the few chances where they can shine? I’m sure your business is not an easy one; mine isn’t (yes, I realize it’s not an airline), but I can’t afford to give my customers/clients (my source of revenues) less than my best.

Sorry about the long reply, but only yesterday I wasted close to an hour trying to understand why my operator (also a tough business) charged me 45 times for the same SMS that the network repeteadly sent to my wife by mistake. Not even an apology for the inconvenience they caused my wife (imagine if this was a client), let alone getting the money back. To my futile threat of taking my business elsewhere, their reply was a symple: “we must remind you that you signed for an 18 month contract, so you would have to pay a penalty”

Good luck with your quest!

Mariano Bedoya September 27, 2010 at 7:25 am

Hi James, today is Sept 27th.
I have tried to contact you about the ShotSpotter System. When ever you have the chance, I would really appreciate you ,please, let me know the best way I have to contact you.
Thank you so very much. Could you find your I-Pad?
Take care

Comments on this entry are closed.

{ 2 trackbacks }

Previous post:

Next post: