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UPS Fail: Mishandled With Care

Shawn Phillips Shawn Phillips 03/12/2021

Operational mistakes happen. If a company handles them well, customers will forgive the occasional lapse.

But UPS’s recent operational lapse on a very sensitive item actually went from bad to worse.

The good news is, we can learn from their mistakes to produce a better emotional outcome for our customers.

And that outcome matters: When customers rate the emotional experience highly, they are much more likely to forgive you for a problem (63% vs. 11%) and much more likely to recommend your brand (76% vs. 6%).

Setting the Stage

My partner, Jennifer, a Minnesota school teacher, was finishing up her last week of online classes before returning to in-person instruction. But on Thursday morning, she noticed she had a fever and aches.

Naturally, she suspected she might have COVID, in which case she wouldn’t be able to return to the classroom on Monday. So she had to find out as soon as possible.

She took a COVID test and sent it off to the lab with the level of service guarantee the urgency of the situation required: UPS Next Day Air.

That would give the lab Friday afternoon, Saturday, and Sunday to process the test, and she would have results in time to decide what to do on Monday.

Or so she thought.

From tested to testy

When Jennifer hadn’t heard from the testing center by late Saturday, she decided to check the tracking status on UPS’s website. The package, which should have arrived at the lab on Friday, was still listed as “in transit.”

But there was also a note that it was guaranteed to be delivered Saturday, so she didn’t worry. They would still have a day and a half to process the test.

Or so she thought.

On Sunday morning, after she finished her lesson plans for the week, she checked the tracking again. The package was now scheduled to be delivered Monday after 1:30pm!

Frustrated and worried, she looked for support options online to find out if there was any way the package could still be delivered by Sunday. (Since the testing center is open seven days a week, this would still allow her to get her test result before she was due back in the classroom.)

A chatbot was the first support option presented. Its response was “your package will arrive on Monday after 1:30pm, as expected.”

Say what?? Jennifer’s frustration was turning to anger. Even though the message came from a bot, UPS was telling her they were getting it right when they were actually going to be four days late.

From bad to worse

The next option provided was number for the call center.

That went about as well as you’d expect, given her luck so far. A recording first urged her to use UPS’s online help options, claiming they were faster and more convenient. (For whom??)

After she waited through a long list of menu options, she requested to speak with an agent. By that point, both her blood pressure and her voice were raised.

When the agent finally came on the line, Jennifer had some difficulty understanding his heavily accented English…a difficulty compounded by an unstable connection that was dropping every other word or so.

After five minutes of trying unsuccessfully to communicate with the agent, Jennifer asked to speak with a supervisor. When the supervisor eventually got on the line, she explained that the package had been sent to the wrong place in Kentucky, was shipped back to Minnesota to be redirected, then was shipped back to Kentucky for delivery to the correct destination.

The supervisor offered no empathy or alternate solutions to accompany the astounding explanation for the delivery delay.

A workaround resolution

Because of Jennifer’s proactivity, she found out at 10:30am on Sunday that there was no way she was going to get that test result in time, despite having done what she could by selecting, and paying for, the overnight delivery option.

In the end, she found a drive-through testing site about 30 miles away and was able to schedule a same-day appointment – the last of the day. Her test was negative and she was able to return to in-person instruction on Monday.

But her anger at UPS remains, and she’s shared her story with others. To me, she said, “This is why I am so skeptical about your work in CX. Big companies don’t care about their customers. You do work that is supposed to engender empathy, but most big companies just end up getting people angry and frustrated. If they had only owned up to the mistake and tried to help, it would have been better.”

I’m sure you, as a fellow CX professional, agree. But let’s spell out what exactly “making this experience better” would entail, so we can help companies avoid these kinds of negative emotions and perceptions.

(Also, someone should check with state government officials in Minnesota to find out how many of the tests they’ve paid for that UPS has lost!)

What UPS (and all of us) can do better

  • Be proactive in your communications.

If you are going to be late, send a text or email notification. Don’t surprise a customer when you’re not going to deliver on a promise.

Even if you can’t find a solution, at least appear to try. Show empathy for customers who have entrusted you with a critical service.

Companies like Amazon have raised expectations for operational transparency. Customers want to know what’s going on…especially when something’s wrong, but even when it’s going to plan. And you’ll benefit in more ways than one by telling them.

Not only will keeping customers informed avoid friction and disloyalty, it also gives customers a chance to understand and appreciate what exactly it is that you’re doing to serve them.

  • Make sure your chatbot has the right information.

    As Heart of the Customer CEO Jim Tincher predicted, 2021 is The Year of Data. COVID forced companies to accelerate and expand their digitalization efforts, but too many initiatives are hampered by bad data.

    Case in point: clearly a package guaranteed to arrive on Saturday isn’t going to be delivered “as expected” if it arrives on Monday.

    Clean up the data feeding your automated systems. Otherwise, all your AI initiatives will accomplish is frustrating your customers more quickly and efficiently than your manual processes could.

  • Track what your customers are doing and feeling.

    If your website first routes customers to online self-service options, then to a call center if their issue is still unresolved, don’t send them to a voice line that instructs them to seek answers online.

    Simple, widely available tools allow you to know when a caller has already tried online options, and even when they are frustrated (through real-time voice sentiment). Those more problematic calls can be sent to agents who are better-equipped to handle dicey situations.

Oh, and offer an apology when you make a mistake.

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