AmEx Travel: A case study in poor CRM process

11 May 2011

I needed to go to the US to attend a vendor’s analyst event.  This meant getting in touch with American Express Travel (AmEx Travel) in order to sort out the flights.  The vendor had, as usual, set up a rule that said “only economy class”, and as usual, I did my homework first and could show that by travelling out on the Saturday instead of the Sunday, I could travel Premium Economy and save enough such that even with the vendor paying for an extra night in the hotel, they would end up saving money, and I would travel without having to have my knees inserted in my ears.

Nice and simple?  OK, I expected there to be a bit of to and froing while the “rule” was checked to see if it could be bent in this case, although why a travel firm cannot advise their corporate customers on items like this in the first place and so give the option for the them to say “The traveller can either have one of their weekend days and travel economy, or give up their weekend and travel premium”, I don’t know.  But, the main thing was that the agent didn’t understand the argument. 

He said “I see what you mean.  So, you’re happy to travel out on the Saturday and save money.  Great – so that’s economy on the Saturday…”. 

“No, the whole idea is for me to travel Premium and still save money”. 

“Oh…”

Anyway, eventually that bit was sorted out.  I understood that the tickets would be non-changeable, and therefore, if there were any changes to be made, I’d face a charge.

Of course, a change was required.  Another vendor asked whether I could make it to their event in the same city, same week.  The two events do clash, but I could make one day of the second meeting by staying on for an extra day.

I phone up AmEx Travel.  All seems well, the agent allows me to change from the flight on the Wednesday to the flight on the Thursday.  I then have to remind him that this results in me having to pay a fee. 

“Oh, yes, you’re right.  That’s $349.86”. 

I pay and off I go.  I inform the other vendor, they book a hotel room for me and start setting up meetings and so on.

Again, nice and simple?  Then the horror starts.  The new travel plans come through. I thought I’d better check them.  Outbound – great, right day, Premium Economy.  Coming back – great, right plane, class O.  Hang on, what the hell is class O?  Off to the internet – Class O is the lowest possible economy fare.

Back in touch with AmEx Travel.  A completely bamboozled agent doesn’t understand what I’m on about, keeps me on the phone for 30 minutes while checking with the airline that I was booked in Premium Economy to start with, and then just says that I can either pay $1,100 to be put back in Premium Economy, or could revert back to my original tickets. 

Great – one of three choices: try and get vendor 2 to pick up a great deal more than I have already told them it would be (and know that they didn’t want to pay this amount), pay the amount myself, or drop vendor 2 from my travel plans.  Whichever way it goes, I’ll not be flavour of the month, and I could end up out of pocket. 

I ask to talk to a supervisor, get put on hold for a further 10 minutes, and then told that “someone will phone back before the end of the working day, oh sorry, what time is it with you at the moment?  Well before the end of your working day.  No – that’s in 10 minutes.  Within the hour, then.”

I eventually get an email the next day from a supervisor who just re-iterates what has already been said.  The only thing added is that as the “rule” was for economy, then when I requested a change, it automatically reverted to economy class.  As it is now the weekend, I reply, but know that I’m not going to get a response for at least 60 hours.

So, is the CRM software at AmEx Travel to blame?  I have no solid idea, but what is apparent is that the agents are not being trained in how the process of CRM works.  If AmEx Travel chooses not to train its agents sufficiently, then it has the responsibility to ensure that its software plugs the holes.  The costs of dealing with what should have been a simple change have been high so far – and will continue to get higher as time goes on.  When I asked for a change, the agent should either be smart enough to read what is in front of them and say “This charge only covers you if you travel back in economy – is this alright?” or the software should force such a message to the agent “This change will result in a downgrading of travel class – check with the traveller if this is OK before proceeding”.

I tweeted quite a bit on this – and was overwhelmed with responses from others.  Finance, telcos, utilities and retail all seem to be the same.  As far back as 2002, Jupiter Metrics said that expenditure on CRM was running at $9.7bn per annum, and expected it to rise to $16.5bn by 2006.  It can be taken then that billions of dollars have been spent on CRM – and yet the standard of customer service does not seem to have changed much during that time.

Why?  Because just throwing money at CRM technology misses the point – it is the process that matters, not the technology.  By getting the underlying processes correct, by acknowledging that rigid rules are far more likely to lead to massive numbers of exceptions, it becomes far easier to demonstrate flexibility to your customers – and so to appear to be more effective, more caring and so lead to better customer retentions – along with lower costs.  Poor process plus poor education combined with inflexible software just means that the poor customer service spiral accelerates.

At the time of writing, the situation with AmEx Travel was still on-going – updates will be posted here.
 
Clive Longbottom, Service Director, Business Process Analysis, Quocirca

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Reader comments

Update

Several increasingly angry communications went between myself and AmEx - it stated categorically that it would not carry the cost. As such I accepted that the travel plans would need to be reverted to the original, and contacted the second company to apologise and say that I would not be able to attend its event. After 36 hours, AmEx then contacts me to say that it has now adapted my travel plans so that I am now travelling back, premium economy, a day later and so I can go to the event. Back to the vendor to plead that can I please still come along, pretty please? So, it looks like I finally get what I wanted - several phone calls, a heap of increasingly tetchy emails, a blog and a load of social networking posts later. AmEx Travel has wasted a lot of time and effort - and has finally had to agree anyhow. Costs all round? Who knows. Customer loyalty impact? I'd rather not use AmEx Travel ever again - although it knows that I am not the main customer - that is the original vendor, so probably does not truly care about me.

I'm still waiting to hear from the second vendor as to whether I can go to its event - if not, I will have to find and fund a hotel stay for an extra night in New York myself - there are worse places to be stuck for 24 hours, at any rate.

Posted by: Clive Longbottom  12 May 2011

Further update

I thought it was all sorted - but then I get an email from AmEx saying that they have fully researched the issue - and it was all my fault, as I did not expressly state that although I was changing the flight, I didn't want the flight class changing. As far as AmEx is concerned, it has no responsibility to point out any material changes to a pre-existing booking.

Also, the person who sent the email seemed completely unaware of how the problem had already been sorted, saying that I could not have a refund (I don't need one, as we sorted it all out).

Further examples of broken CRM systems that just don't hang together - and further alienate a customer, even when the initial problem has gone away.

Posted by: Clive Longbottom  25 May 2011