Discretion is a Corporate Bad Word

Mike Dunford of “The Questionable Authority” blog relates an on-going negative experience with United Airlines. His wife is in the US military and has 15 days of leave to meet with Mike. The 15 days began when her flight arrived from Afghanistan in the USA. However, her connecting flight on United Airlines was cancelled due to fires and weather conditions that disrupted flights on the eastern seaboard. United told her that the earliest that they could book a flight for her was over 24 hours later. When you have 15 days for family leave, over a day spent waiting in a Chicago air terminal is not an insignificant hiccup.

Here’s where things got more interesting, or infuriating. Mike started looking for flights himself, and he found seats for sale on earlier flights from where she is at to where he is at. On United Airlines. He passed along the exact seat specifications to his wife, who consulted with the agents where she is at, and was told that the agents do not have access that would allow them to assign those seats without payment.

Apparently, corporations have figured out that their bottom lines are improved if the will of the soulless bean counters in corporate can be imposed without the moderating influence of the compassion of local functionaries who actually get charged with dealing with the end customer. To that end, the information technology (IT) departments get assigned to create systems that restrict the actions that the customer service agents or anyone in that entire chain of command can actually do. This certainly appears to explain the Dunfords’ poor handling by United Airlines.

Diane and I have our own data point on this phenomenon. We had some credit card debt accrued back when MBNA was a going concern. MBNA was bought out by Bank of America (BoA). Let’s say for brevity’s sake that our further experiences on that account were not pleasant. Earlier this year, we finally had the opportunity to pay off the account early. An electronic payment was set up and sent late one day. The next day, Diane tried to login to retrieve the payment records from the online system. She could not even login; the system said that there was no such account. Over the course of an acrimonious hour-and-a-half phone session with BoA, we learned a few things. Because the previous year BoA had “offered” an annual fee to go with the account that had never had one, we declined. They said that the account would be closed when the debt was settled on the account. According to BoA’s representatives, that meant when our balance payment arrived, the account was closed, and with it went our access to the online system. We explained that our only access to the records of our payments was via the online system, they said that there was nothing they could do about that. Oh, and by the way, because of the timing of our payment, there was a further finance charge that was billed to the account. How were we supposed to know about and pay such a charge if we couldn’t actually get to see our account balance? The BoA reps had no good answer on that. Could the BoA people send us our records in electronic format, just like we used to get when we had access to our account on the online system? No, they had no means of getting to a closed account themselves. I asked them what happens when law enforcement comes by with a warrant and requests the records of a closed account. They weren’t sure, they said, but in any case it wasn’t something that they could do anything about.

Now, on any scale of evil, BoA is certainly going to be found to be headquartered on a lower circle of Hell than United Airlines. But the same impetus and mechanism of corporate skin-flinting can be seen in play in both. Perfectly personable customer service representatives are forced into frustrating the end customer in order to uphold corporate policy. The effect of frustrated customers is assumed to either be negligible or to be outweighed by the savings the corporation achieves by denying customers whatever might be sought. The only way that this will change is if we frustrated consumers can figure out how to change that economic assessment. We need to identify the corporations that remove discretionary power from their customer service people and give our custom to corporations who leave discretion to their customer service agents. This is not a simple task, and that’s what those soulless bean counters are relying upon.

Wesley R. Elsberry

Falconer. Interdisciplinary researcher: biology and computer science. Data scientist in real estate and econometrics. Blogger. Speaker. Photographer. Husband. Christian. Activist.