Tuesday, December 16, 2008

An open letter to United Airlines Customer Relations

Dear United Customer Relations,

I am writing to explain to you how you lost a 20-year Mileage Plus customer and 15-year Mileage Plus Platinum Visa card holder. If I have any choice in the future, this is the last flight I will be taking with United. I will be forwarding a copy of this letter to Chase Bank to explain why I am cancelling my Mileage Plus Visa card. I can only hope that someone from Chase follows up with you to discuss how your inability to waive a fee cost them thousands per year in revenue.

We've been through a lot in the past 20 years. I've been through fare hikes, strikes, reorganizations, and route changes. In recent years, I've put up with an escalating series of fees, service reductions, and a general decline in service quality. Hey, everyone was doing it, right? (Well, OK, not Southwest or JetBlue). This time, though, the issue was in your control, was your responsibility, and you could have fixed it. You chose not to, so I am choosing to sever our relationship.

My family and I are traveling to the West Coast for Christmas and wanted to use our accumulated miles for the tickets. I booked the tickets in early summer, but even then the blackout dates forced us to make the trip eleven days long rather than taking just the week around Christmas. At least I was able to get the tickets, and I booked them in time to avoid the new checked baggage surcharges.

Our travel plans changed in October. Now we needed to go Boston to LA to Oregon and back to Boston, so I called the United reservations desk to try to change our tickets. Rather than flying Boston to Portland, we wanted to fly Boston to Los Angeles. Given the number of flights between these two cities, I assumed that this wouldn't be a problem. However, I was informed by the reservations rep that there were no "Saver Award" seats on flights to LA, so the best he could do was charge me $150 per ticket for the change and put me on a waiting list, in case someone else with an Award ticket cancelled. My Portland tickets would be cancelled immediately.

Since this seemed like quite a gamble, I asked what my options were. The rep told me that my best bet was to purchase a new set of one-way tickets to LA and then to Oregon, keep the current round trip flight from Boston to Portland, and just use the return segment of the ticket to get home again. This way, he said, I could guarantee our trip to LA and avoid any fees, since I would not be changing the award travel tickets in and out of Portland. In fact, he said, I could reuse the Boston to Portland segment at a later date if I wanted. Looking at your web site, I confirmed that there was no charge for changing an Award ticket if the destinations and routing remained the same.

I followed his advice, booked separate tickets to LA and Oregon, and thought that I was all set. This week, I wanted to be sure that everything would work out as the agent said, so I called back yesterday to confirm that our return reservation would remain even if we didn't use the outbound segment. This time, the agent I spoke to told me that this constituted a route change and that I would have to pay $150 per ticket to convert my round trip ticket into a one-way ticket. There was nothing he or his supervisor could do to waive that fee, despite the fact that it was their desk that gave me the incorrect information. They suggested that I talk to Customer Relations. I did, and while the Customer Relations representative initially agreed with the first rep's assessment (no route change, no fee), after he spoke to the Reservations desk he informed me that I would still have to pay the fee.

So let's check the score here. United has four additional seats on flights from Boston to Chicago and from Chicago to Portland which, given the busy season, have a high likelihood of being filled. I, on the other hand, am now being asked to pay $600 for half of a round-trip flight that was supposed to be free, as part of a customer loyalty program. This, on top of having to purchase the other tickets, didn't seem fair to me, so I made it clear to the representative that we had reached my last straw with United. If I had to pay another $600 for these "free" tickets, I was done.

After another 30 minutes of waiting on hold, the reservations desk said that the best they could do was to cut the fee in half. My free tickets would now only cost me $300 and I could keep the same seats on the one-way flight from Portland to Boston. No one, from reservations to customer relations, phone rep to supervisor, had the "authority" to rectify your agent's mistake. Despite being unfailingly polite and apologetic, your customer relations team failed in its task to provide accurate information or to take responsibility for the information that they did provide.

I understand that customer service is a difficult job. I understand that the ticketing policies, especially around Mileage Plus award travel, are confusing and that sometimes people make mistakes. However, someone has to take responsibility for those mistakes, especially when a customer takes actions based upon bad information. Simply shrugging your collective shoulders and insisting that "that is the policy, sir," is unacceptable. Had I been given accurate information, I would have changed my plans accordingly. I could have purchased other tickets, sought a refund, or booked the trip around the existing route. Any one of these approaches would have cost me less money than I have now spent on this trip. The responsibility for that misinformation falls with your company, and you have refused to accept it. That, in a company/client relationship, is unforgivable.

The final score:

- Client: keeping half of a round-trip ticket, down 100,000 miles, $300, and several hours of time
- United Airlines: up $300, down one airline customer and one 20-year relationship

In this game, everyone loses.

Well, not Southwest or JetBlue...

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Just saying "We're Agile" is not enough, apparently

Haut Tec » Agile is an Attitude, Not a Method

So it turns out that you can't just say, "We're Agile," throw all discipline out the window, and have a successful project! Who knew?

To paraphrase Casablanca's Captain Renault, "I am shocked, shocked to find that people are using Agile as a cover for sloppy coding!"

Now, the team in the article above had the persistence and good sense to work through their issues and realize the benefits of agile development, but many of my company's clients have not been so wise/fortunate.
Some developers, rightfully fed up with the constraints of waterfall development, have staged a revolution at their companies. They went to management waving some Wikipedia article about Agile development and said, "Look! We can be four times as productive and give you your application at a fraction of the cost if you just let us go Agile! It removes all that nasty overhead and lets us go back to writing code, which is what you ostensibly hired us to do in the first place!" And management, momentarily stunned by hearing a developer use the word "ostensibly," agreed to the experiment.

Of course, what the developers really wanted was to stop writing documentation and going to meetings and just write code. What they forgot was that without the documentation and the meetings, they had no requirements, and without the requirements they had no test cases. So now they were free to write code, but they had no idea what to write. So they started holding "scrums" and "story sessions" and generally wandering the halls begging for requirements or, worse, making them up themselves, and they got themselves into a mess. When they finally did get to write some code, there was no way to test it because the QA team was still waiting for the documentation that told them what the code was supposed to do.

After a few months of wandering in the Agile wilderness, these developers and their management team threw their hands up in disgust and said, "Agile doesn't work! Let's go back to the old ways!" And like the Israelites longing for the fleshpots of Egypt, they ran back into the comfortable, if inefficient, slavery of waterfall development.

It turns out that the laws of organizational physics still apply: a certain amount of discipline is required in any human endeavor to balance the natural entropy generated by humans working together. If you relax the rules for the group around documentation, signoffs, and strict order of operations, you must balance that with responsibility at the individual level to ensure that handoffs are clean, requirements are clearly understood, and, ultimately, the code works as expected.

Done right, Agile development is a highly disciplined, flexible approach that clearly outstrips the competition. When developers, analysts, and testers take personal responsibility for understanding their tasks, communicating decisions to the rest of the team, and delivering on their commitments on a daily basis, any team can "go agile." Relax the rules without that balance, however, and you get chaos.

Or, put another way...

Come and see the violence inherent in the system!