Last Friday, I posted Irene Hoe's story about how she had missed her SQ flight to the US but was still happy because of the excellent service that the ground staff had given her. But she also gave notice that there was a second part to her story --- one that concerned the call centre and this time, it wasn't a pleasant experience at all.
After a week in the States, she finally found time to write about it. Here's her story addressed to Singapore Airlines:
When I was unable to board SQ62 that morning because of an ESTA problem, I called your reservations line to get me on the next flight out to the US, which was the flight going to LAX.
Unlike my experience with Lily and Dinesh at my abortive check-in, my dealings with your call-centre employee who gave his name as Rafiq proved most trying.
There seemed to be an impenetrable electrolinguistic fog between us that thwarted all my attempts to make him understand what I needed him to do.
His constant and repeated response was to insist that any changes to my itinerary had to be made through my travel agent.
I said this could not be correct. He kept insisting otherwise.
I was quite dumbfounded that he seemed not to understand me when I said again and again that I was still at Changi Airport, that it was 4am in Singapore and my travel agent's office would not open till 9am, by which time it would be too late for me to get on the LAX flight whose ETA was 9.45am.
Finally, after perhaps 10 minutes of this completely fruitless batting around of words, I said: "OK, let me start again. I have missed my flight. I need to get to the United States as soon as possible and this SIN-LAX flight is the next one out. Tell me how I can get on this flight."
Then and only then did he say that I could do so if I paid a $75 re-issue fee. Aiyoh!
Later on, it struck me that this SQ call centre could have been routed offshore to a call centre possibly in India, and that the extra $75 would be such a hefty sum in his terms of reference that he would think it unimaginable that anyone would want to pay it rather than wait a few days for a travel agent to sort it out.
That is the most charitable explanation I can come up with.
Never have I ever been so frustrated in my dealings with any airline's reservations call centre.
When I asked Rafiq if he could help me to change my onward connecting flights, which had been routed through Houston originally, he said bluntly: "No, you have to do it yourself." It wasn't just his words that were annoying but the completely unhelpful way in which they were uttered.
When I asked why I had to pay a no-show fee even though I had tried to check in for the flight, he said: "It's not the fault of Singapore Airlines that you were not able to board."
Ergo, it's YOUR fault, dummy.
At no time did I ever feel that this employee even halfway appreciated the stress that a passenger experiences over a missed flight, much less cared.
Moreover, when he transferred me to an automated system for payment, it kept timing out, and required repeat attempts.
When it came to making payment, Rafiq might as well have been a robot.
Is it is too much to expect a call-centre employee to walk a customer through the process? It would have helped if he had explained the prompts to expect and how I should respond, and to caution me that there would be a time limit.
All he did was inform me that I was being transferred me to some automated system. So, each time the process could not be completed and the call bounced back to him, he would sound increasingly irritated and I, ever more agitated.
By the time I hung up, I was drenched in perspiration from this utterly stressful encounter.
Think about this, SQ: These days, customers contacting your call centre are probably on cellphones. Therefore, each time your payment system prompts a customer to input some number or code, there is a time lag when the customer takes the phone from his ear (not everyone uses a Bluetooth headset) to key in whatever is required.
You may want to rethink the time allotted, unless you truly believe that the only people who call Reservations are digitally deft and perenially Bluetoothed teenagers capable of hitting the right keys precisely and flawlessly while their cellphones are still in their pockets.
Better still, please do investigate how United Airlines manages its call system which answers the issues I have raised. It uses voice recognition to perform most routine functions, referring callers to an employee when requested or when the system detects that a particular caller is experiencing difficulties.
It couldn't have been more of a contrast to Rafiq when I dealt next with United Airlines reservations. Its response to my predicament was sympathetic and helpful. "Sorry you missed your flight out of Singapore, ma'am. Let's see what we can do to get you a connecting flight."
I have one last request. I don't care if you do not respond to this email.
But whatever you do, PLEASE DO NOT send me one of those anodyne and insincere template replies . These form responses are irritating beyond belief and an insult to customers who have identified your system problems and taken the trouble to write to you. "