The Usability Blog
A Practical Guide to User Experience Insights

A CX Failure: My Mother’s Rant

I like to try to call my mother on my way in to work most days. It’s a great opportunity to catch up on what’s going on in each other’s lives, see how things are going, and start the day with a friendly chat. I was chatting with her the other day about her trip; recently, she and my sister, as well as a couple family friends, took a long girls’ weekend and went up to Manhattan.

As a researcher, it can be difficult at times to “turn off” one’s analytical assessment of day-to-day experiences. Given the importance of Customer Experience, and the massive shift we’re seeing as companies put a laser focus on their CX initiatives, good and bad examples of CX journeys are all around us. As she was telling me the story, I knew I’d have to share this, as it was such a poignant example of a CX journey across multiple touch points.

Here’s the story I got when I asked her, “How was your flight?”

Well, let me tell you about our flight. We flew Spirit Airlines. We were looking for the best flights and Spirit had really good pricing. Sure, I knew it’s a ‘discount’ airline, but that’s ok; it gets you from A to B. If they’re not going to give you a complimentary can of soda, oh well; you can just buy one in the airport. No big deal.

Right off the bat, we see some basic legwork being done to research and determine which company to go with. There’s a bit of knowledge about the brand selected, and the low cost was a key deciding factor. Although some basic amenities are not included, it doesn’t hurt the overall value proposition.

So one evening after work, I got on my laptop and went to Spirit’s website to buy the tickets. I selected the flight we wanted and went to reserve seats. I wanted to get the seats at the front of the plane because they’re bigger and roomier, which would be especially nice since we’d have Max.

[Note: Max is my 18-month-old nephew. He’s adorable.]

It’s a bit of an upgrade in pricing, but it’s worth it to be more comfortable and besides, Spirit’s prices are already lower, so it’s not that bad. So I went through and purchased all our seats, no problem. I provided all of our information, including Max’s. The day before the flight, I printed the tickets to speed things up at the airport.

The purpose of her visit to the website, to select seats and purchase tickets, went well. As a standalone touch point, the user experience of the site works well. But it’s not enough to just ensure individual instances across the customer journey work well; the whole of the experience must be considered.

When we get to the airport, we discovered that we can’t use the self-service kiosk because we’re traveling with an infant. That’s somewhat annoying, and I don’t want to wait in line to talk to someone when I could just use a kiosk, but oh well. We waited our turn, and after the agent finished with the slow, elderly couple in front of us, we were checked in with no trouble. Bags were checked, the TSA line was surprisingly short, and we got to the gate ready to fly.

Minor problems and some room for improvement, but nothing too terrible. So far, so good.

Now here’s where things really fell apart. When we boarded the plane, we discovered that the plane layout, like the way the seats were arranged and such, was different. The diagram had shown more seats together, so we could sit with our friends, but apparently that wasn’t going to happen. But what was even worse was that we had very specifically booked the front row, so that Max would have more room and we wouldn’t have to worry about accidentally disturbing someone in front of us. But this plane had a row in front of us! We were now in the second row, which we didn’t want to be in, and it was the smaller, less comfortable seats. Now I was pissed.

Now we see the customer experience start to crumble. Perhaps it was fairly innocuous; maybe there were delays or problems with the plane that was originally planned. Regardless, the customer’s upset. There was no communication or update, just a jarring realization once on the plane. This is a great example of how individual moments in a customer journey may be sufficient, but don’t work well in concert. The booking of the flight and printing the tickets was easy and well-received, but transitioning that information to the boarding of the plane led to significant problems.

But guess what. It got worse! After we were already sitting down, the flight attendant came and told us we’d have to move. We couldn’t sit in those seats because we had an infant. What the hell?! We provided his info, they knew about him, we had to check in at the counter because of him. And now they told us we had to move?! Something about the type of seat having inflatable seatbelts or something like that… So the flight attendant asks the people behind us to switch with us. Great. To add insult to injury, now we weren’t even sitting with our friends… I just wanted to get off the plane and enjoy a weekend in Manhattan.

The disconnects that arise between channels, between touch points in a customer journey, are often critical contributors to CX failures. And these failures influence the perceptions and beliefs of the customer. It really makes the customer start to wonder, can a company like this be considered competent and trustworthy?

I needed to call Spirit for a refund, because I’m sure as hell not going to pay for fancy seats I didn’t get to sit in, but I didn’t want to deal with them right away. But after gallivanting around Manhattan for a couple days, I was resting in the hotel room on Sunday afternoon and decided to call reservations. The rep answered the phone, and said his name was “Chuck”. The call was annoyingly tedious because “Chuck” didn’t speak English very well. It was like pulling teeth, but eventually, after providing our info and seeing the account, “Chuck” said he would refund the $200 but then abruptly hung up. I thought we were disconnected, at first. He just said “ok” and then click. I waited for him to call me back, since he had my cell phone number, but he never did.

It can be easy to forget that customer service representatives are a vital link in the chain of a customer experience. However, this channel often acts as the “voice” of the company in the minds of customers, and it’s important to ensure that experience is a pleasant one.

Well, when it was time to come home on Monday, we headed to the airport, not at all eager to go through that nonsense again. This time, we knew better, so we told the person at the check-in counter of our previous dilemma, to see if we’d need to change seats again or not. Seemed better to do it there than on the plane. And yes, she did have to change our seats.

The customer should not have to anticipate and counteract the failures of a company. There were numerous opportunities for the company to begin rectifying the customer journey here, but nothing was done.

As we went to board the plane, Samantha [my sister, Max’s mother] was carrying Max in front of me. She handed her boarding pass and Max’s to the person scanning them, and he scanned both but paused and seemed confused. I think because I had purchased the tickets, Max was technically traveling as my infant; my name was on his boarding pass. Seeing the agent’s hesitation, I handed him my boarding pass as well, which he looked at and handed back to me, before letting us move forward. But he didn’t scan the ticket. Now that I’m thinking about it, that’s kind of worrying: they just let people on the plane without scanning the ticket.

At this point in the story, I’m almost impressed by a customer experience that was so bad. The experience was so bad that it didn’t simply affect my mother’s opinion of the company, but made her maternal instincts kick in and question not only her own safety but that of her child and grandchild.

When we get on the plane, we discover our seats are again inferior to what we wanted and paid for. There are three of us together with the infant and one of us sitting with strangers. To top it off, the flight was delayed a bit, as they came in and were hand counting all the passengers. They never said anything or asked about my ticket, but I wonder if it was because the agent forgot to scan my ticket.

After getting back, I called on Tuesday for a refund of those seats. At first the rep just wanted to offer me a partial discount of the extra I paid for those nice seats! What?! Again, if my butt didn’t get to sit in a fancy seat, I’m sure not paying for it. Not even partially. So I pressed and eventually got him to offer a full refund. After 40 damn minutes on the phone!

The CX implications from this story are numerous, and I considered writing some of them out in more detail. But the more I thought about it, the last thing she said about it was really the most critical and the most telling. Sure, maybe she misremembered some of the details, but it doesn’t change her final impression. This was the final result, the basic belief, that her customer experience led to:

I won’t be flying with Spirit again, believe you me.

-Matt Daughtry, Senior User Experience Specialist, Usability Sciences

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