Good people giving poor service at American Airlines

John Goodman noted in his book, Strategic Customer Service, that 60% of service failures are caused by poor products, processes, and marketing messages. My travel experience on American Airlines last week illustrated this concept perfectly.

I flew from San Diego to Washington D.C.’s Reagan International Airport (DCA) with a layover in JFK. There was a tight connection due to some weather-related delays, but I made my flight. I worried about my bag making it too, but the captain assured us that they were able to wait for all passengers and baggage to make it onboard before departing.

Service Failure #1: My bag didn’t make it on to my flight to DCA.

The baggage counter employee told me that my bag was still at JFK and was being routed to DCA on a Delta Airlines flight scheduled to land around 10:30 pm. She told me they could deliver the bag to my hotel at midnight, which was okay since I had until 11:30 am before I needed to meet my client.

Service Failure #2: The clock struck midnight with no sign of my suitcase.

I tried to look up my bag’s status on the American Airlines bag status website, but it was useless:

Next, I called the 1-800 line for lost baggage and spoke with a very kind person named Kimberly. Unfortunately, she couldn’t give much of an update since she her database contained very little information. She did confirm that my suitcase wouldn’t be delivered that night and suggested I check again in the morning.

I called again at 7 am and spoke with another nice person named Bob. He couldn’t tell me when my bag would be delivered either, but he did tell me it had arrived the night before on the Delta flight. He suggested that I go to the airport and pick it up there if I wanted to ensure I received it as quickly as possible.

Service Failure #3: My suitcase never made it to DCA because the Delta Airlines flight from JFK had been cancelled.

It was clear by now that the American Airlines system used to track and retrieve lost and delayed baggage was broken. A broken system is only as good as the weakest link in the chain and will continue to fail until that link is repaired.

Fortunately, Raleigh was working at the baggage counter when I arrived around 7:30 am. He had clearly been around the block a few times and knew that the system wasn’t fully reliable. Raleigh set more reasonable expectations than the other employees, telling me that my suitcase was now scheduled to arrive in Washington, D.C. at 10:30 am, and wouldn’t be delivered to my hotel until sometime after noon. He also cautioned me that they wouldn’t know exactly where my suitcase was until Delta handed it back to American since their systems didn’t talk to each other.

Raleigh gave me his direct phone number and assured me he would do everything he could to ensure my bag was found and delivered to my hotel. He was apparently violating some minor policy by giving me the direct line for the baggage counter, but really good customer service employees know when to bend the rules.

It was now only 8 am and the stores at the local mall didn’t open until 10, so I had some time to kill before going out to get new clothes. I was a little stressed since that didn’t leave me much time before my 11:30 am client meeting, but felt I had enough time to make it work.

As I walked through the terminal I saw an oasis - a Jos. A. Banks clothing store, open and ready for business.

Two associates named Fekadu and Alena helped me pick out an outfit for the day. They had everything I needed, all the way down to socks and underwear. Both were incredibly helpful and empathetic to my situation and. I actually felt good as I left the store with my new clothes.

Fortunately, my client meeting went well and my suitcase was in my hotel room when I returned later that evening.

I still have another hurdle or two to cross with American Airlines. I’ll expect them to refund my baggage fee for the delayed bag plus reimburse me for the clothes I purchased. Hopefully, that part of the system isn’t as broken as the baggage and retrieval part was. If it is, I’ll have to give my new friend Raleigh a call and see what he can do.

Live Experiment: A breakthrough with Whirlpool?

I think I finally have a resolution after contacting Whirlpool 16 times to update an expired credit card. And, I've also confirmed my suspicions that there was a broken link in the chain. As I've written before, your service is only as good as the weakest link in the chain.


My wife and I had a subscription where Whirlpool automatically sends out a new water filter for our refrigerator every six months and bills the credit card they have on file. Our credit card recently expired, but so far we've been unable to give Whirlpool the updated information. 


Yesterday, I exchanged direct messages on Twitter with Chris, a Whirlpool employee who monitors their customer service Twitter feed @WhirlpoolCare. This led to a phone call where I explained that between my wife and I, we had now contacted Whirlpool 16 times in an effort to update an expired credit card. Chris listened, apologized, but like everyone else we had interacted with, he told me he was unable to help me. However, unlike everyone else so far, Chris offered an alternative solution and explained why he was unable to fix my expired credit card (more on the credit card in a moment).

The alternative we agreed upon was that Chris would send us a complimentary water filter as a gesture of goodwill. It would then be up to me to re-establish a new online account with my updated credit card as a workaround to the problem. (I could also find an alternative source for the water filter.)

This is huge because, as I explained to Chris, I have a house full of Whirlpool appliances. Before this incident, I wouldn't consider another brand. Now, I wouldn't consider Whirlpool unless this was resolved. If the filter arrives as promised I'll consider Whirlpool back on my list of preferred appliance brands (their appliances are really, really good).

The Broken Link


Chris also revealed the broken link in their chain. The water filters are fulfilled by a third party, so Whirlpool customer service employees have no access to that company's fulfillment system. The only tool they are given is the instructions on using the website that they can relay to customers. This explains why each customer service representative we've encountered has been unable to help. Apparently, the system's designers never imagined the system could break so there were no contingency plans for handling this sort of situation.

Unanswered Questions

I didn't want to press my luck by asking Chris too many question since I was his last customer of the day and he had stayed a little late to talk to me. My top priority was getting a resolution and I had that now. However, there are a few unanswered questions that could be instructive.

What is the escalation procedure? If a system is broken, someone should be able to escalate. Why couldn't (or wouldn't) Whirlpool's customer service employees escalate this issue to someone who was empowered to fix it?

Where is the process broken? The specific problem was technical, but was it on Whirlpool's end, the fulfillment company's end, or both? When two parties encounter a problem, the instinct is often to point the finger at the other party, which means nothing gets resolved.

What's the full impact? I have to imagine my wife and I aren't the only ones to experience this problem. Is this problem really an iceberg? In other words, how much business is Whirlpool losing due to situations like ours?

Jeff Toister is the author of Service Failure: The Real Reasons Employees Struggle with Customer Service and What You Can Do About It. The book is available in paperbook, e-book, and audio book formats.

You can learn more about the book at or purchase a copy online at AmazonBarnes & Noble, or Powell's Books.