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Last week I left my family behind and took my 82 year-old father and his brother to Yellowstone National Park. This was a bucket list item for both of them and due to their declining health, it may have been our our last opportunity for such an adventure.

There are tons of details that need to be sorted out when traveling with someone who has special needs. In this case, it was two gents who have trouble walking long distances. This meant that during the air travel portion of the week, I was arranging for wheelchairs and negotiating the hotels of Yellowstone — which are preciously short on handicapped rooms and other accommodations for the elderly in lodgings — many of which were built long before ADA and not since updated.

I’m not going to go on my “We need to invest in our public spaces” rant. Suffice to say, we have these beautiful places and we make it difficult for folks to visit them in the name of preserving a quaint vision of the distant past. Upgrade, folks. Upgrade.

Being on vacation, I try to swivel my brain to things other than my day-to-day grind. Of course, that business function gets a little bored so it eventually looks for opportunity for improvement in all the processes that it encounters. So here’s my list from my current trip. It’s an age-old problem.

Hey Xanterra, it’s not 1996

Xanterra has the monopoly on lodgings at Yellowstone. It and its predecessor companies have had the concession since the beginning of time. If you go to their website it is all but impossible to get a room. The biggest problem is that they cater to the tour operators and allocate tons of rooms to these folks. But that’s not the problem that most irritates me. The user experience on their website is awful. They should go to any of the major hotels, take some screenshots, and start over. It’s a digital world. Regardless of your business, you need to offer an awesome digital experience.

United Airlines. Know me.

During the booking of my flights I indicated that my traveling companions needed assistance. Everywhere we went, wheelchair transportation was available, but in about half the cases we had to request it. Kudos to whomever runs the business in Chicago. Wheelchairs manifested at the right time and things went flawlessly. At Jackson, Wyoming, things required a bit more prodding. At Bradley, it was as if I were requesting that they manifest some rare earth mineral. The airline will told me it was a vendor’s fault. Just so we’re clear, I paid the airline. I blame the airline. United knew I needed this service and they needed to deliver.

Seek your customer’s truth

This is another United Airlines episode that has a happy ending. Our flight out of JAC was late. According to the flight crew they were held in ORD for an equipment problem. That caused the flight to be 25 minutes late in arriving. Departure from JAC was further delayed by a 20-minute “ground hold.” With less than a one-hour connection in ORD, that initial delay was enough to kill our chances of getting to the next flight. Two elderly people can’t get from one side of ORD to the other in 30 minutes.

The rebooked flights they offered were coach tickets in the last row of the plane. The flight would arrive after midnight. This was clearly not going to work so we opted for a flight leaving the next morning. The issue became who would pay for lodgings. I argued that it was on United because the delay in the original flight, a technical issue, was what caused us to miss the flight. United’s initial position was that the most recent weather-related delay caused the miss. When I pointed out that I was traveling with two elderly gentlemen, the representative understood. United picked up the tab.

Exceed Expectations

Our experience at the Jackson, Wyoming TSA security was awful. They all but strip-searched an 82-year-old, 35 year Air Force veteran. I’m usually highly tolerant of TSA inconveniences. I like that planes don’t fall out of the sky. However, it was embarrassing to see the idiocy in full bloom. The net of all the screening was: a) my father was determined not to be a threat and b) in all the shuffling from station to station, he left a small duffel bag behind that contained his medications and iPad.

We didn’t discover that the carry-on was missing until we got to ORD so I reported the problem to the United baggage folks. Since it wasn’t checked baggage they handed me a business card with a QR code on it. I was suspicious of this process but played along. I entered my info on the linked website and was surprised to not only get frequent updates via text but to be notified that they had found the bag and would be returning it. Kudos to United. Not so much for the TSA.

Be the process. Be the customer.

None of the observations above are particularly astute. I was able to make them because I was able to experience the process as a user. It’s very hard to do this if you’re the process owner. You have too much invested in your own truth. If you really want to know how things work, use your processes regularly. Talk to your customers often, not via surveys, but by actually talking to them in the moment where the process is being executed. How does your customer experience treat your visitors? See what they experience. Feel their experience. It’s the most valuable feedback that you can get.

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