I’m worth $200. According to US Airways, at least. In asking, ‘What am I worth?’ this blog post isn’t a rhetorical question about income or status, but a case study on the value of a customer. The life time value of a customer can be a golden nugget of information as a business – representing the total revenue dollars that one person will spend with a company in their lifetime. To Chipotle, Starbucks and Apple – I’m sure that I’m worth more than I’d care to admit. Two or three $8 burritos per month times 12 months times +30 years…you get the picture.
But I recently had a disastrous moment of truth with US Airways where they could keep me or lose me forever, and it seems they decided I’m worth $200. Forever and always. This sum of money was a slap in the face after the series of events that unfolded this past June.
I mentioned in earlier posts I went to Europe this summer with my girlfriend, Brie. It was supposed to be the trip of a lifetime – two weeks to explore Rome, Cinque Terre, Nice, Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam. It was her first time to Europe and probably our last chance for many years to be able to take off 14 days to travel. I saved and budgeted for 6 months, and we talked about our excursions almost daily between my work and her studies. June 14th finally came and we were scheduled to fly from Columbus to Charlotte then over to Rome.
We spent the layover in Charlotte saying bye to friends and looking at our itinerary. Then after a long 6 months we finally heard our last boarding group called to leave for Rome. The gate agent took Brie’s boarding pass, looked at her passport and said, ‘Well have a happy birthday in Europe!’ I was next and handed over the same documents. A few long seconds went by before she stopped me and said, ‘this passport might not work.’ Cue the shock and anxiety. ‘I think you’ll be fine in Italy but not in Germany,’ she said. ‘Ok…? I’m not going to Germany but what’s wrong?’ ‘Well your passport has wear and tear and I’m afraid they might send you back.’ The unsure agent handed it to another employee, who gave it one confused look. He picked up a phone, rang once, no answer, and declared, ‘We can’t let you on the flight.’ I tried not to panic and ease the situation but they were decided in their unsure decision about my passport I’d used numerous times. ‘If we let you go and Italian immigration sends you back, we get fined $10,000. You’ll have to try to go to a passport agency to get a same day passport. Good luck.’
To make a long story short, we were denied boarding on a Friday evening in Charlotte. I spent the next four hours on the phone with airlines, passport agencies, a useless insurance company, and my gracious travel agent. We ended up having to fly to Buffalo, New York for a 10am meeting on Monday because there was no other availability in DC, Philadelphia, Atlanta or Charlotte. If all the stars aligned, and the passport agency didn’t think my passport was damaged as well – we would have to get the passport quickly, get to the airport for a 3:30 flight and catch a short layover in Philadelphia to finally get to Rome.
The salt in the wound really came when I finally got to the window at the passport agency in Buffalo and the lady said surprisingly, ‘I can’t believe they didn’t take this passport?!’ Great. So an employee with a hunch made a quick decision to try save her employer from a fine and the US government agency is telling me they made a mistake?! Now I have to spend thousands of dollars, rearrange a shortened trip and go through a huge mess as their beloved ‘customer.’
And the entire time every single US Airways representative could care less. I’m confident that Miley Cirus cares more about her brand and customers than US Airways. From the original gate agent to the service desk in Charlotte to the reservations hotline to the service desk in Buffalo to the service desk in Philadelphia. Every single person threw their hands up and said, ‘Sorry, not my job. Nothing I can do.’
*The ‘wear and tear’ of my former passport.
Four days and $2500 later, we finally boarded another flight from Philadelphia to Rome. We chopped cities and ditched plans but had a great time despite the airline.
When we arrived home and I felt like seeking a resolution with the airline, I found out you cannot call customer service. You email a black hole, and they might have a human write an email back or possibly call you. 13 emails, 4 phone calls and too much time spent explaining my situation – someone finally said, ‘It looks like we overreacted and we will review your case for compensation.’
I have proof that a government agency deemed my passport acceptable. I also have proof of $2500 in expenses in order to stay in Charlotte, fly to Buffalo, hotel and meals in both cities, expedited passport fees, and cancelled reservation fees in Europe. Not to mention the original cost of tickets for a trip that was nearly ruined.
So when the US Airways customer service employee told me they reviewed my case and had decided to award compensation, I waited anxiously to hear the final verdict. ‘Mr. Dichter we’ve decided to award you a $200 voucher for the inconvenience.’ I laughed and said, ‘$200?! That is nothing more than a slap in the face. Our trip was nearly ruined, our tickets originally cost thousands, I spent $2500 to get a new passport, and you admitted that you made a mistake. I fly for business 8 times per year and I’m sure my girlfriend and I will travel numerous times for the rest of lives and I guarantee you that we will never fly US Airways again if you can’t take care of a customer you admittedly wronged’ ‘$200 is all we can do and you can’t take your case any further.’
A business mentor told me that a company can create a customer for life in the way they handle an upset client; an author I follow often says that customers vote with their dollars. Needless to say US Airways lost a lifetime customer forever who will take his dollars and vote elsewhere (I’ve flown four times just in the three months since the event and avoided supporting the company).
Even in pleading for some type of reasonable compensation I did my best to explain my life time value to US Airways – the fact I fly at least every 6 weeks, I’m part of an Inc 500 company that books hundreds of tickets per year and the fact my girlfriend and I will travel for the rest of our lives. Surely an admitted mistake to salvage a client is worth more than $200. Perhaps I’m not good at math, or don’t understand airline customer service or maybe I’m not worth much in my lifetime to US Airways.
Thoughts? Have you had an airline or other company make up for admitted mistakes and win you over as a customer for life? What is the lifetime value of an ideal client in your business? Tune in next week when I discuss the Big Move.