US Airways customer service director: À la carte fees are the only way forward

John Romantic is the director of customer relations and central baggage resolution at US Airways. But he’d prefer that you simply think of him as your advocate at the airline. For the last nine months, he’s had the unenviable job of improving the carrier’s checkered reputation for customer service. I asked him how he’s doing it.

Q: I’ve been hearing a lot of buzz about some of the changes within US Airways, when it comes to handling customer service questions. And I’ve seen a marked decrease in reader complaints. What are you doing?

Romantic: We are doing a lot, and we’re glad there is a buzz starting.

My goal when taking my position nine months ago was to transform customer relations from a complaint resolution center into a customer advocacy center. Better said, while we handle customer inquiries, we also need to globally understand customer sentiment and use all of that data to look at our product, policies, and processes. Our focus is to find ways to be easier to do business with.

Q: How?

Romantic: We code 100 percent of the customer responses we receive, and have created better reporting from this data. We have established an executive steering committee which meets regularly with the primary focus of understanding our customers’ feedback, and finding ways to improve our customers’ experience resulting in reduced complaints. The work of this team has lead to several recent changes – with some still in progress.

We realize we have a little more ground to make up on customer complaint rankings, but our actions are starting to close the gap with our competitors.

Q: How many requests does your department handle in an average week? Can you break it down by phone, fax, letter and e-mail, please?

Romantic: The actual number of requests varies by time of the year, load factor, peak and off-peak times. But the current breakdown is 91 percent handled via e-mail, 5 percent via phone and 4 percent via fax or written correspondence.

Q: What’s the best way of contacting US Airways when you have a problem with a flight?

Romantic: The preferred method of contacting US Airways is to use our Web form on the US Airways Web site under “Contact US”. The data provided by the customer on the Web form enables us to assign the issue to the best person available in customer relations to handle the request.

It is also the most expeditious method of contact in that it allows the representative to complete any research before responding to the customer.

Q: What’s your average response time? Do you have performance targets for responding to customers, and if so, can you tell me what they are for inquiries by phone, fax, letter and e-mail?

Romantic: We publish a response time of one to three business days. But to be honest with you, I get a little excited when our response time climbs above one day. We are looking to improve upon that metric by looking at more technology to improve productivity and respond more quickly.

Q: How are passenger inquiries prioritized? Do frequent fliers get answered first? Do people with tickets booked through a consolidator get processed closer to the end?

Romantic: Another advantage to using the Web form is that the structured data fields enable us to triage – or compartmentalize emails by issue or customer type. This allows us to prioritize certain types of customers such as Dividend Miles Preferred customers or customers with disabilities. It also allows the many compliments that we receive to be handled later in the queue and by other employees in the department.

Emails sent directly to specific personnel at US Airways do not get the same level of filtering or prioritization. We do not currently differentiate our service by ticket price in any way.

Q: Tell me more about your new email system. What did you change, and how is it working out for you?

Romantic: In September of last year, we replaced our database system with a Web-based customer response management system. The CRM application provides us with a database by which we can better understand our customers’ concerns as well as positive customer feedback. It also enables us to better manage the type of requests coming in as a result of the email triage component of CRM.

We are looking at more automation as well that will further improve productivity and reduce customer response time.

Q: What one thing about handling customer complaints do you wish customers knew, but don’t?

Romantic: Customers can do a couple of things to ensure an appropriate and speedy reply to their concern.

Customers should always summarize their concern at the beginning of their note, including key information like their confirmation code, date of travel, and flight numbers. Then, provide a few succinct bullet points illustrating the key aspects of their experience. We sometimes get very long, detailed letters that include irrelevant information. These types of contacts are difficult to comprehend and craft an appropriate response in a timely manner.

And give us a chance. Sometimes customers feel like they increase their chances of a successful outcome by sending their concern to multiple points of contact in the company. We have seen instances where customers research our corporate officers, sending each one a personalized letter detailing their experience. This sometimes lead to multiple people trying to solve the problem, and can cause the response to be delayed.

Q: Let’s say the question wasn’t answered. That happens from time to time — and I’m guilty of doing this, too — but sometimes agents read the first two paragraphs and send a form letter that doesn’t address the issue. What’s next?

Romantic: This does happen, but fairly infrequently. Our representatives are well-trained to handle just about any type of customer issue to their satisfaction.

The appropriate way to handle this is to simply send us another short response. We categorize this as a rebuttal, and it gets prioritized for handling. We also realize that at some point it may make better sense to use the phone and we will contact a customer after a rebuttal. This also gives me an opportunity to look at rebuttal responses for coaching improvement, as we strive to continually increase customer satisfaction when corresponding with customer relations.

Q: What are the biggest mistakes customers make when dealing with your department? Is there one thing that guarantees you won’t get an answer — like YELLING or using profanity?

Romantic: Well, we understand when things don’t go well that a customer may be upset. Our representatives are well trained to handle the emotions that sometimes follow service failures.

One thing we hear from time to time is that responses from customer relations get trapped in someone’s spam filter. So, it is best to ensure that your email is set to receive a response. We do appreciate not yelling or use of profanity though!

Q: What do you think passengers should expect from US Airways? Do you think that differs from what passengers expect, and if so, how?

Romantic: I believe that more often than not, we are able to meet our customer’s expectations. It really depends on the circumstances and the type of service failure. Expectati
ons seem to have a wide range dependant on the person and their situation.

We do get a lot of requests for roundtrip tickets on traveled — yet delayed — itineraries. We do not provide round trip tickets as compensation, but we do compensate with future travel dollars when the circumstances warrant it.

Weather delays and cancellations can also be tricky as we typically do not compensate for acts of nature outside of our immediate control.

Q: I’d like to ask about some of the more recent changes, including the baggage fees that were added last month. How do you go about explaining something like this to passengers who maybe feel as if luggage charges and other ancillary fees are unfair?

Romantic: Without a doubt, the airline industry has changed dramatically over the past five years. The model that airlines used five years ago is no longer a model that can sustain the costs of doing business. Even at today’s lower fuel prices, airlines are still losing money.

As a result, most major airlines are adopting an “à la carte” business model, which allows customers to pay for what they need, and not pay for what they do not need.

Sure, it sounds easy to just raise prices across the board instead of applying fees for services. But with too much capacity in operation and fares changing literally every minute, it is simply too hard to raise fares while remaining competitive with other airlines.

Besides, if you are on a business trip or typically carry on your one bag, then you would not want to be subject to higher fares. So, for some customers, the a la carte business model may actually save them money.

Q: I wanted to ask you about the latest Air Travel Consumer Report, which shows 63 people wrote to the government to complain about US Airways in February. Can you help put that number into perspective for our readers? How do you get that number down, apart from appealing or shifting the complaint to a regional carrier?

Romantic: In February, US Airways flew 3,843,035 passengers which excludes Express carrier traffic and received 63 complaints written to the DOT [Department of Transportation]. That is a rate of 1.64 per 100,000 customers flown. Purely from a numbers perspective, most carriers are within 5 to 10 complaints of each other monthly. And US Airways is closing that margin fast.

We are analyzing our DOT complaints very closely. As I mentioned earlier, we are looking at everything we do that may detract from customer satisfaction. The prominent driver of DOT complaints for all airlines is ineffective recovery from flight problems that occur. While US Airways boasts one of the better on-time records of late, we must look at ways to better manager service challenges when they do occur.

The March report will be out soon, and we are definitely seeing progress. The actual number of DOT complaints is down 35 percent year over year through the first quarter of 2009, and 29 percent on a ratio per 100,000 customers.

Finally, it is my responsibility to understand what drives complaints and work on solutions. As we do that, I also want to ensure that all customers know that their voice is being heard when writing directly to my customer relations team at US Airways.

Elliott is a syndicated travel columnist. You can read more interviews on his travel blog.