Friday, May 05, 2006

United, outsourced

The lovely Carol was trying last night to book flights to Santa Fe so she and Jenny could visit St John's College. She tried using a few websites, and then some idiot wondered out loud whether we had enough United miles to get free flights for them. Well, that started a treadmill.

They wanted to get there by 2pm Monday, then stay til 4pm on Tuesday. Eventually she found an itinerary that would do that by arriving about 4pm Sunday. Free flight, too! But she only had enough miles for one ticket.

I, however (the aforementioned idiot), had enough miles to cover another ticket, so I tried to get tickets for the same itinerary. Things were looking good, so she hit PURCHASE and got her ticket. I hit PURCHASE for Jenny's ticket and... Sorry, we just sold out. Gaaaaa! I opened another browser window and tried to PAY for a ticket on the same itinerary. No joy.

So the lovely Carol got on the phone and started fighting with United's automated voice denial-of-service system. She got frustrated with it and eventually got a real person. Unfortunately she couldn't understand him. Then her phone ran out of juice and powered itself off.

I got onto the landline and called 1-800-8648331 or whatever it was. The website says "800-UNITED1" but the buttons on my phone don't have digits. Why don't they put numbers on the website? I mean, it looks cute to have your name as the number, but at least some of us want NUMBERS too. It's the windows attitude: 90% of people have letters AND numbers, so who cares about the remaining 10%?

OK, where was I? Right, I pressed 3 for domestic reservations and immediately started saying "I want to talk to a real person". I said it 3 times and then it said, "Domestic or international?" I said domestic and got a person. Hooray!

The agent I talked to understood me right away, and informed me that we would have to change the outbound routing. Get on at San Jose 7am, off at Albequerque 3:45pm or something like this. OK, I said, let's... hello?

We got cut off somehow. Since they have ANI, I hoped they might call me back, but after 5-10 minutes I figured it wouldn't happen. I repeated the procedure and got an agent who spoke a little more slowly (she was evidently new on the job). I am sure that all these people at the call center were in India.

It took quite a while, maybe half an hour, during which I heard the itinerary in detail (flight 9876, departing San Jose at x minutes past y in the morning, arriving at HUB x minutes past y in the afternoon, operated by united express/skywest; then flight 5432, departing HUB at x minutes past y in the afternoon, arriving at Albequerque x minutes past y in the evening... and so on for the return) at least three times. I heard the conditions (not transferable; changes incur $100 fee; but if you call us within 24 hours you can get a refund) at least twice.

We did get a ticket on the original itinerary (11am-4pm, much better than 7am-3:45pm). It cost about $525.

I have a mixed reaction to the experience. I thought about these poor people, for whom a call center is a dream job, struggling to understand foreigners half a world away, facing their impatience and wrath, trying their best to improve life for themselves and their families. I thought about the hundreds of my fellow Americans who had jobs at call centers, but have them no longer.

And how about the customers? How much more would they be willing to pay, per ticket, to talk to someone they could communicate with more easily?

And the shareholders? United spent how many months in bankruptcy proceedings?

It sure is a complicated world.

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