No Jitter is part of the Informa Tech Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them. Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.

Digital Customer Support Still Lags


Someone rating customer service
Image: Looker_Studio -

Most people want to use digital channels to resolve customer issues, but I don’t understand why. I find it usually takes longer. Of course, calling can be painful too as contact centers are masters of deflection. That’s the industry term to avoid having an agent speak to a customer and includes menus of automated solutions that have had (in the past) low resolution rates.

What’s particularly perplexing to me is that customers generally prefer digital and contact centers generally prefer digital, yet the experience remains inferior. There’s no reason digital can’t be better, so occasionally I try it out.

I recently had a customer experience that demonstrates how arduous digital can be. I called United Airlines for support when I noticed TSA PreCheck did not show up on my boarding pass. At 11:41 a.m. I called the toll free number for customer service, and the system immediately recognized my phone number and elite status. It asked if I was calling about the trip I recently booked, and I provided a verbal “yes.” I was then given the choice to speak with an agent or receive a text link for online chat. Out of curiosity, for the first time I opted for chat.


Disjointed Workflow

Now, let’s be clear about a few things. I could not initiate the session by chat. I had to call first. Also, at this point in the call, the next step would have been a live agent. It’s just a guess, but the agent would probably have resolved my issue in the next minute or two.

At 11:42 a.m. I received a text from United Airlines that offered two links, one for an iPhone and one for an Android mobile device. Actually, I would have preferred my desktop browser, but because it was an SMS text message the phone was logical. A simple URL with a code could have worked nicely on a desktop browser.

The link opened a chat window, where a second bot greeted me. Let's call it the text bot. It gave me a generic greeting that offered to assist me or connect me to a human. There’s a number of benefits to doing a chat season on a smartphone if the customer has an app installed. I do have the United app, but as far as I can tell, the support bot wasn’t leveraging the United app. It turned out to be Android Business messaging, which is SMS-like.

The text bot asked me to provide my ticket’s confirmation code. I had to switch back to the United Airlines app to get the code. The phone’s bot didn’t require had not required this code. Of course, there was no way to copy my confirmation number, so I had to jot it down and then enter it on the Android keypad. Then the text bot asked for my last name. That’s two pieces of information the bot I spoke to on the phone magically determined on its own, and forgot to relay to the text bot.


Unrecognized Queries

Next the text bot asked me to explain my issue, for which I replied "no TSA Pre.” The bot offered me a link to the TSA website for information on PreCheck and Global Entry. On an interesting, related note: According to a recent Forrester report, customers rated their experiences of bots 6.4 out of 10, citing the bot’s lack of understanding as a key problem.

I didn’t need the TSAs website to explain TSA PreCheck to me, I did need a United agent, so I typed “chat with an agent.” It was now 11:45 a.m. There was a possibility I would have been done already had I stayed on the phone. The text bot assured me it would pass on my information to the agent and summarized it by telling me my name and confirmation number. That’s a great idea -- the text bot might want to suggest that to the phone bot. It then asked me to enter a sentence to describe my problem for the agent. I typed "No TSA PreCheck on my boarding pass."


Slow Live Support

The support bot then gave me the name of the agent that would eventually help me, and told me I was agreeing to United Airlines’ privacy policy regarding personal information. It provided a link so I could review the policy I agreed to.

The agent started chatting with me at 11:48 a.m. It took a few more text exchanges to completely resolve the issue at 12:01 p.m., so the human took three minutes to resolve the issue, but the entire service interaction took 20 minutes, extended significantly by using the digital option.

Since I had an agent, I had two additional questions about the Star Alliance program, so the entire chat session actually ended at 12:28 p.m. Those two questions, which were honestly even easier than the original issue, took an additional (painful) 27 minutes.

I understand why organizations want to have agents working on multiple customer chats at one time. But there is something known as too much of a good thing. The reason this chat took so long is partly because I had to repeat information, and presumably because the agent was managing way too many interactions at the same time, at my expense.


The Customer Survey Was Useless for Offering Suggestions

After the agent dropped off the chat session, United asked me a few questions about my experience. I was eager to complete the survey. I wanted to let the airline know that the authentication was missing and that I shouldn't have had to start over when I switched channels. I wanted to tell it that the gaps of silence between exchanges were way too long. I also would have said that if I could do it over again, I would have stayed on the phone.

But United didn’t hear any of that.

Instead, I was asked a “yes” or “no” question about whether my issue was resolved. I answered “yes” because it was. I’m sure the digital team will celebrate with high-fives.

I was given a multiple choice question about the quality of service the agent provided. These questions annoy me because it can be hard to separate the agent from operational policies. The agent seemed fine, but the outcome was a slow process. I fear that they will use negative scores to punish the agent, so never know how to respond. In this case, I chose the middle option of satisified. I wanted to convey that I was not extremely satisfied, nor was I extremely dissatisfied. What they will discern from that response is anyone’s guess.

I was then asked to provide additional feedback about the messaging experience. Here I wanted to compose more of my thoughts, but remember -- I’m typing on a phone’s keyboard, and it’s now been almost an hour. I probably would have said more if I could speak instead of type. I simply entered “too slow.” I was expecting a “thank you.” Instead, the bot reset and welcomed me to United Airlines and invited me to begin chatting.


Poor UI

I wanted to share these thoughts, so I looked for my chat history to see the timestamps. I could not find it in the United Airlines app. There’s plenty of places it could have been stored. I checked the Inbox, under My United and also in the Help Center.

I am able to access it by going back to the original chat message and clicking on the link. The conversation is stored in Android Business Messaging. There is probably a way, but I cannot find a way to access it without the link.


Digital Interactions Should be Superior

I applaud United and other vendors for embracing new digital channels. I know that a lot of people prefer to use digital channels over voice, and there’s many times where digital makes more sense. What I don’t understand is why so many companies are making it an unnecessarily painful experience.

I spent over an hour trying to resolve some issues through digital channels that probably would have taken less than ten minutes on the phone. I am not keen to go through that process again, and probably won’t until I’m convinced the vendor in question understands that digital interactions should not be to be as good as voice, they superior, especially in cases where the customer has installed the vendor's app. The digital channel can passively solve for authentication, can support screen sharing (my boarding pass), and eliminate the need to re-enter information (my confirmation code).

In this case, the voice vs. digital interaction both involved a live agent. I'm certain the voice channel would have provided a superior experience, but that doesn’t have to be the case. The reasons favoring voice are getting fewer, and often the advantage is by design — a design that can change. Companies can and should embrace digital channels. Done right, brands can incentivize people to use digital over voice. Just as booking a flight on a website is better than the phone. Why shouldn’t customer service be similarly frictionless?

Dave Michels is a contributing editor and analyst at TalkingPointz.