Unless you're reading this column for the first time, I don't need to tell you that I'm a huge proponent of technology. I book my flights and hotels online, pay 90% of my bills by phone or Internet, and often buy movie tickets from automated kiosks in order to avoid long lines.
But every now and then, something happens to remind me that there is still quite a bit to be said for the "human element" involved in making things happen. I was reminded of this last month during a brief visit to Florida.
I was en route to Jacksonville to meet up with some friends for a long-weekend. Due to a bizarre series of events, I missed my flight out of Cincinnati.
No big deal, I thought. I'll just catch the next flight out.
The next flight out… To Florida… On the busiest day of the week… During Spring Break... WRONG.
The heavy volume of Spring Break travelers meant that it was going to be nearly impossible to catch another flight that day. I was put on standby for the next flight out, but was warned that my chances were not good. The first flight out for which the airline could guarantee me a seat wasn't for three days.
At some point that morning, I decided that flying standby was a lost cause. Feeling adventurous, I decided to rent a car and drive down to Florida. I booked a vehicle, and then returned to the check-in counter to let them know that I would pass on the standby flight, but that I still intended to fly back to Cincinnati on the same ticket.
Having never been in this situation before and perhaps being somewhat naïve when it comes to the inner workings of the airline industry, it came as news to me that if you miss your flight down, the airline (at least the one that I was using), must "re-issue" a new one-way ticket at an additional charge. In my case, this additional charge amounted to almost $300.
Driving 12 hours down to Florida is one thing. Driving 24 hours to Florida and back in a four-day span is quite another. And given that I was on a budget, I really wasn't keen on the idea of handing the airline another $300 of money which had already been earmarked for buying drinks for the numerous women I was sure to meet in Jacksonville. Feeling more than a little frustrated, I spotted an available customer service agent and wandered over toward her to see if she might be of any assistance. She introduced herself as Pam and greeted me with a warm smile.
After I explained my plight to her, Pam double-checked the departing flights to make sure there wasn't some way I could get a flight out that day. When she came up empty, she tendered the first bit of good news I'd heard all day. Since I had been a victim of bad circumstances and lousy timing, Pam offered to ask her supervisor if it would be ok for me to fly back on the same ticket.
A moment later, the supervisor appeared and greeted me with a handshake. After we spoke for a few minutes, he authorized me to fly back to Cincinnati on my existing ticket at no additional charge. He also provided me with his business card and telephone number, and urged me to call him personally if I had any problems whatsoever.
A dozen hours later, I completed the drive to Florida. Three days after that, I flew back to Cincinnati without any problems.
Had it not been for the human component involved with these transactions, I probably would never have made it to Florida. As much as I love computers and the Internet, the cut-and-dry world of technology doesn't allow for the type of creative solutions that Pam and her supervisor provided me with. You can't ask a computer to "bend the rules" for you or "check with its supervisor" when dealing with a touchy situation.
To be fair, the Web does seem to be making some progress in the customer service arena. Many service-related sites have implemented 24-hour policies when responding to e-mail inquiries. Additionally, a growing number of businesses have introduced real-time messaging utilities as an alternative means of communicating with customers. Still, it's a far cry from what you get when talking to a person face-to-face.
My experience was a reminder that this is not a black and white world. There are always going to be issues and obstacles which demand the kind of judgement calls that only a human being is equipped to make. Regardless of how advanced technology becomes, there's always going to be a need for one-to-one interaction with outgoing people like Pam and her supervisor.
Now, if only they could find my luggage.