The opening line of the email was short and to the point, although the subject, “Travel Alert,” was a bit misleading. On a red screen in all-cap white letters was the message: “SORRY, YOUR FLIGHT HAS BEEN CANCELED.” (A more accurate email subject would have been “NON-travel Alert” or “You’re not going anywhere.”)
The follow-up was woefully inadequate: “Sorry to throw a wrench in your plans. Let's figure this out and get you on your way as soon as possible.” “Sorry” minus a pronoun failed to convey empathy and “as soon as possible” didn’t give me the impression that it was going to be anytime soon.
I’ll spare you the details of the confusing litany of rules and regulations contained in the body of the email. In the moment, I managed to glean that new travel arrangements had to be made online unless I was a member of Virgin America’s rewards program, Elevate. For the most part, what came through loud and clear was Virgin America’s virtual shrug.
The wrench in their vacuum
That shrug notwithstanding, I eventually got home. I rebooked on a different airline via a frenzied combination of phone, online, and in-person transactions. (Not to mention cutthroat airport tactics gleaned from recently watching reruns of The Amazing Race.) Through it all, my annoyance at the canceled flight was compounded by my irritation at the way Virgin America handled this “wrench in my plans.” Had I been born within the last twenty years as opposed to the last, let’s call it, forty years, would I have been less miffed at Virgin America’s “Guest Services Team?”
Had I been born within the last twenty years as opposed to the last, let’s call it, forty years, would I have been less miffed at Virgin America’s “Guest Services Team?”
Much has been made of the distinctions between generations, particularly when it comes to our relationship with companies that sell us products or services. Marketers intent on wooing consumers across the five generations alive today break us down by stereotypical habits and preferences, the better to attract and retain us. Our differing demands of customer service are likewise dissected. Technology is much touted as a point of divergence across the generations, as is formal/informal language and the proper use of grammar. But as real as these distinctions are, they can’t be applied in a vacuum.
With this vacuum in mind, I forwarded the “Travel Alert” email to a few friends, checking in with people across generations. I was interested in other reactions to the email and whether aspects of the experience that rubbed me the wrong way would feel perfectly okay to someone else. How would they feel if this situation (and response) had happened to them? I was fully ready to feel old and curmudgeonly, chastened by generations who took this customer service exchange in stride.
And yet, surprises.
United across the generations and customer service
One Millennial echoed my sentiments almost verbatim: “The up-front ‘Sorry, Your Flight Has Been Canceled’ message definitely strikes the wrong chord with me. It sounds apathetic as if Virgin America is not taking responsibility for throwing a wrench in my plans.”
And perhaps most surprising of all, from this member of the digital generation: “I would expect a phone call [emphasis mine] in addition to this email to personally apologize for the inconvenience and offer to help me adjust my travel plans.” Why didn’t I think of that?
A second Millennial I queried was okay with the tone but dismayed with the process: “The ‘let's figure this out’ is smart wording but I'm quickly frustrated again when I realize it must all be done online unless you're a special member. This feels like it could be more complicated than booking a flight. It would be nice if they at least offered a customer service option. I've tried calling airlines in the past with zero luck reaching anyone. I once went directly to the Buffalo airport to talk to someone because the lines were all busy for hours.”
Compare this to the Baby Boomer response: “Tone of the first paragraph is acceptable [insert astonished-face emoji here]. Don't like ‘Cheers’ for a closing. Too perky. I'd be feeling pissed.” My Boomer’s last comment, “I'm probably not an "Elevate" member, right? After reading how easy THEY have it, I'd probably be madder,” makes an excellent point. Offering faster and more courteous service to one group (and letting everyone know it) is not good customer service. In this, we were united, across the generations.
“Tone of the first paragraph is acceptable [insert astonished-face emoji here]. Don't like ‘Cheers’ for a closing. Too perky. I'd be feeling pissed.” - Baby Boomer
A respondent from the Greatest Generation described how things would likely go down for her after receiving the email and reviewing its bewildering two paragraphs of travel options: “So, this confusion drives me to the phone to talk with a person, and there's no way I would attempt to deal with it online, especially since I've received this email only hours before my flight. The thought of getting through the Virgin America menu to be able to speak with a human being practically sends me through the roof, but that's probably what I'd elect to do.”
High touch or high tech? Service where you are or when you want?
Examining what different generations want from customer service a few themes emerge. Data show that the Greatest Generation expects more personal attention from customer service than do later generations and value “high touch over high tech.” Boomers on the other hand, “are independent, with a ‘can-do’ attitude. They like to dig in and overcome obstacles on their own.”
Conventional wisdom has it that Gen X “value streamlined processes and systems, and prefer informal, casual, high-tech communication” and Millennials “expect you to serve them where they are, when they want, customizing your approach to what is relevant to them.”
The stakes appear to be higher for companies to get it right with the younger generations: According to a Microsoft State of Global Customer Service Report, “68% of 18 – 34-year-old consumers have stopped doing business with a brand due to a single poor customer service experience (compared to 60% across all age groups and 54% of consumers ages 55+).”
These biases didn’t really hold up in my informal Travel Alert survey. I wondered if this had more to do with the reason for the customer service interaction (canceled plane flights being the great equalizer) or the unequivocally inadequate response from Virgin America. So, I went back to the same group and solicited feedback regarding customer service expectations more generally.
Customer service for the ages
The Baby Boomer in my unscientific study echoed the data above, noting that she values a clear, easy to navigate website with an easy-to-find phone contact if needed, and finds that FAQ pages can be very helpful.
One of my Millennials reinforced her generation’s preference for the flexibility to access customer service across different platforms and for quick, personalized care: “If the website is easy to navigate I'm cool with that. Sometimes I really just want to talk to someone and other times the instant message option is wonderful. I can fold laundry as I work out the details of a bill. I try to get the representative's name and direct line when dealing with an ongoing problem. It worries me a little when that is not an option.”
For my Greatest Generation representative, personal connection was best, as long as that process wasn’t complicated. “Connecting with a live person, without scrolling through an interminable series of questions and more menus, when I have a problem/question is my top requirement.”
We all want what we can have
I get it that companies want to break us down by generation, the better to understand our whims and wants. Hopefully, this means better customer experiences across the board. And truly, we’ve given them little choice, given our demands for better and better customer experiences. A recent report from The Center for Generational Kinetics found that “the majority of Americans, of every generation, say that their customer service expectations have increased over the last three years. That means that what was good enough only three years ago is no longer good enough for over half of all customers in America.”
Yet clearly there are circumstances that trump stereotypes about age and render us all just…human. In those moments of crisis–a canceled flight, a lost package, a lapse in our health care coverage–we all want help that feels personal and empathetic. Indeed, the bigger the problem the less tolerance we have for customer service getting it wrong.
In those moments of crisis–a canceled flight, a lost package, a lapse in our health care coverage–we all want help that feels personal and empathetic.
If my recent Virgin America incident taught me anything (aside from never, ever show up at a gate without a seat assignment), it’s that when a company chooses one form of communication for all of its customers, it had better be sure it’s using an approach that speaks to all. I’ll give you another chance Virgin America, because I’m not a Millennial and I like your groovy purple lights, but moving forward I’m looking for less “Cheers” and more “Sincerely.” And I have the feeling I’m not alone.
Laura Shear is a Bay Area-based freelance writer and consultant. She's addicted to home improvement projects and rescue puppies and firmly believes rosé should be enjoyed year-round. Find her on Twitter: @lmshear.