In my day job as a content writer in enterprise tech and cybersecurity, I often write about the potential of digital transformation (DX). DX is about using the power of digital technology to transform a business, especially its customer and partner relationships, using mobile computing and APIs. One frequently cited example is how a retailer can undergo DX to implement an omnichannel shopping experience for its customers.
There’s a problem, however, one that more than a few business managers might want to understand: transformation is not inherently good. If I add a teaspoon of mud to a pound of honey, I’ve transformed it into a pound of mud. So, too, can you transform customer relationships from bad to worse through the misapplication of digital technology. I will share an example of this syndrome using my recent experience flying from Cleveland to Tel Aviv via American Airlines, connecting to El Al in New York.
Transformation is not inherently good. If I add a teaspoon of mud to a pound of honey, I’ve transformed it into a pound of mud.
American and El Al are partnered on this route. Until a few years ago, if you booked a flight from Cleveland to Tel Aviv, El Al made a reservation for you with American to get you to New York, but it was an arm’s length transaction. You checked in twice. You checked your bags twice. Now, with DX, you get Cleveland-through-to-Israel check in, along with baggage checking all the way through—no doubt enabled by APIs and rules-based business process management (BPM) software linking steps in the check-in workflow with underlying software at each airline.
When I tried to check in at Cleveland, however, I learned that my COVID test was 56 minutes too late for the 72-hour cutoff. The rules-based system evidently has no override for this seemingly minor problem. The counter agent, who had all the charm of a Stasi agent, told me I needed to get another COVID test at the airport, which precipitated a mad scramble for my son and me.
The new COVID test made us one minute late to check in for our flight. There’s a 40-minute cutoff. I asked if there was any way they could to get us on the flight. The the same humorless bureaucrat at the counter informed me that there was nothing they could do. “The computer shuts down the reservation after 40 minutes,” she said. As for my El Al flight, the DX process did not go so far as to enable American to rebook me on El Al. I would have to call them myself while white knuckling the results of the in-airport COVID test.
At this point, my customer experience was definitely being negatively affected by an overly rigid rules-based system. DX was going sideways.
At this point, my customer experience was definitely being negatively affected by an overly rigid rules-based system. DX was going sideways. If anything (and this could be an unfair accusation, but it was my perception), she seemed pleased to be carefully enforcing the rules with me. When you wear a white shirt and black yarmulke, you often get subtle reminders that you must follow all the rules, that no rules will ever be broken for you. It’s an odd little kabuki orthodox Jews go through when dealing with corporations and public officials. It was particularly irritating in this case, given that we’ve all seen planes return to gates to collect late passengers, and all sorts of other special exceptions made to airline rules when someone feels like it.
We wound up missing our flight, but got rebooked onto American and El Al flights later that night. Then, for reasons that no one could control, our flight to New York was four hours late, and we missed our flight to Tel Aviv. This is when the paradox of DX done wrong truly manifested itself.
My son and I found ourselves at JFK at midnight, with no one to talk to. El Al has no one on duty at the airport at that hour, despite the fact that they should have known, at least in theory, that passengers had missed the connection. A normal airline has at least one agent available to speak with in this most common of circumstances. It is possible that my son and I were the first two passengers in the airline’s 74-year history to miss a connection, but I doubt it.
It is possible that my son and I were the first two passengers in the airline’s 74-year history to miss a connection, but I doubt it.
And… El Al’s call center is closed when it’s not business hours in Israel. Their outbound message suggested we try to contact them on WhatsApp, but I know from previous experience that it can take up to three days to hear back from them on the app. We had no idea where our luggage was and no idea if and when we could get to Israel. We wound up sleeping in the clothes we were wearing at an airport hotel, an unexpected $250 expense.
Looking on aa.com, I learned that my luggage had “arrived at JFK.” This was another dubious API triumph. It’s definitely impressive that a baggage bar code scanner can tell aa.com that my luggage is in NY, but why not actually say where it is? I needed to collect my luggage. JFK is a sort of big place, as American Airlines might know.
I was put on hold for an hour and seven minutes before I reached a live human being at American Airlines to find out where my luggage was. I could have found out in two minutes if they had bothered to publish the phone number for their JFK luggage office on their website, but someone decided not to do that. There’s Shirley a reason for that decision, but I don’t get it.
Getting rebooked on El Al also took about forty minutes on the phone, when their call center finally opened at 2AM New York time. For some reason, they put you on hold for 10 to 15 minutes to check what seats are available. Maybe they all share one teletype terminal at the El Al call center. At least, however, they apologized for my rough experience at JFK. This made me wonder if anyone at El Al understands that it’s odd, to say the least, for a global airline to refuse to answer the phone 16 hours a day.
They would not make you wait for 67 minutes to speak to a human being if they were concerned about your experience.
Here’s the takeaway: If you want DX to transform your customer relationships, you have to want your customers to have a good experience with your brand. This may sound obvious, but it’s quite clear to me that neither American nor El Al care at all about their customers. If they did, American would train its counter people to at least smile and say, “I’m sorry” when their rules-based systems make miss your flight. They would not make you wait for 67 minutes to speak to a human being if they were concerned about your experience.
If El Al cared even in the slightest about their customers, they would have a 24-hour-a-day call center and a late-night agent available at JFK, one of their biggest hubs.
If El Al cared even in the slightest about their customers, they would have a 24-hour-a-day call center and a late-night agent available at JFK, one of their biggest hubs. But, they don’t. I’ll never fly them again.
In my view, the American-El Al partnership, with its undoubtedly costly DX features, is a massive failure. Yet, I could be looking at this the wrong way. If American’s and El Al’s business strategy is to cut customer service costs to the bone, regardless of customer experience (which happens in monopolistic industries like air travel), then the DX on display here is a great success.
If you care about your customers, however, then it would be wise to align your customer strategy with your DX program. Then, all that investment in application integration and BPM will pay off for the business.