Perils of One-to-None

Yesterday I wanted to book travel between Denmark and England. I’m in Australia, but knowing Scandinavia’s regional airline is SAS, I decided to go to its Web site to make my reservation. This article might have been about my frustrating search for SAS’s URL, which (counter to logic) isn’t but However, it’s about a greater frustration: how a seemingly simple and potentially positive experience disintegrated into a complicated, negative, two-hour exercise in system analysis.

Here’s what happened.

Arriving at the airline’s home page, I found an excellent offer for the flight I wanted. I began the booking process. It took me through five rather involved steps and required me to fill out the usual: departure dates, class preference, and general preferences.

Then, the problems began. The system asked for my member number. I didn’t have one, so I was requested to enroll. This necessitated leaving the reservation system. I did and proceeded to complete an extensive application, replete with all the questions you’d expect. Returning to the ticketing system, I was astonished to find that while I’d been away for the 55 minute sign-up affair, my offer had disappeared.

I checked the home page. The offer apparently no longer existed. Maybe my choice of cookies tagged my sign-up information and eliminated the offer I was halfway through booking? My only recourse was to call Sweden to find out how to continue. So I did.

This was how I learned that by signing up with an Australian home base rather than a Scandinavian one, I’d caused the system to automatically redefine its home page. Those original offers were gone and replaced with irrelevant (to me) offers. This, despite the fact I was visiting SAS’s global home page in the first place.

The one-to-one attempt backfired on SAS, too. To retrieve the offer I wanted, I had to create a Danish profile. No fake Danish address allowed, either. The telephone adviser told me a false address meant no ticket. Off I went to establish a second user profile, this time using personal data with which I’d hardly recognize myself. It worked. In two hours, the offer was back up on the home page, and I booked the good-value ticket.

Not a very exciting story to take up your time with, but a very instructive one for a growing number of sites. As Web sites of airlines, car-rental companies, and hotel chains try to coordinate and personalize international offers and communications, consumers are entangled in a web of confusion. Sites are harder and harder for laypeople to use.

This type of experience is hardly unique to SAS. Visit American Airlines, US Airways… you name it. You’ll find challenges that turn sites’ one-to-one intentions into one-to-one confusions. What could have been a great experience and new client opportunity for SAS turned into a profiling drama. The results are useless to the airline, unrecognizable to me, and a waste of time all ’round. The unnecessary complications and tedious time wasting on the site are seared into my memory, making me sceptical about my next trip with the airline.

Can you think of a worse start to a client-brand relationship than one that creates a negative impression of the brand before the product has been encountered? One-to-one is crucial to smart branding. Don’t let it lose its mind and turn into one-to-none by frustrating, alienating, and chasing away customers.

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