United Airlines to disconnect foreign call complaint center


Last week United Airlines confirmed that, come April, it will disconnect the phone line to a foreign call center contracted to field customer complaints and compliments. Customers with issues to discuss will still be able to call the airline’s general 800-number but, as anyone who’s tried navigating United’s (or any airline’s) automated phone tree knows, the focus there is on selling tickets and tweaking reservations.

From here on out, even if you get through to a live United Airlines agent, you’ll likely be told to send post-flight comments, good or bad, in old-fashioned letter form or via email.

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Why quit answering the phone? According to United Airlines spokesperson Robin Urbanski, the company did research on the success of the feedback line and concluded that “people who email or write us are more satisfied with our responses.”

However, many travelers, hospitality industry experts, and folks in the field view the call-center closure as a cost-cutting measure and yet another step away from focusing on customer care.

In a tough economy, when keeping every customer you’ve got is more important than ever, United’s move puzzles folks like Zeke Adkins of Luggage Forward, a door-to-door luggage shipping company. “What is unclear to me is how this [research] led United to conclude that eliminating, rather than improving, their call centers would be the best strategic decision.”

Others suspect that as the economy worsens and budgets tighten, live customer-service centers will disappear elsewhere as well. But that’s doesn’t mean well-mannered travelers should stop giving feedback on service. We may just need to learn some new skills — and sharpen some old ones.

“It’s a skill that anyone can master and everyone should,” said Betsy Whitmore of Angie’s List, a web site that invites consumers to rate and review companies and services. “Whether it’s travel, home improvement, or restaurant service, not speaking up about bad or good service is a disservice to you and the company involved.”

Whitmore is right, said John Crotts, director of the hospitality and tourism management program at the College of Charleston. “Customers or guests who complain are a business’s best friend. They are telling you where your problems are and giving you the opportunity to correct mistakes, thereby keeping their loyalty.” His advice to travelers: “Speak up!”