An out-of-office email – from a computer

This has nothing to do with healthcare, but it’s the most priceless example I’ve seen in a long time of Not Customer-Oriented Thinking, and perhaps Scary Workflow, both of which do apply to healthcare sometimes.

United logoAs a Boston-based traveler, I have United and StarAlliance as my main airline network. Last night I tried to merge my United and Continental frequent flyer accounts (post-merger), and it didn’t work because my name’s slightly different in the two systems.

(Hm, that is a common problem in healthcare. Anyway:)

To resolve this I had to fill out a form on the United site, and get my issue into their system. I did it, and 2 minutes later look what I got: an out-of-office email from their computer:

Out of Office AutoReply: Web Request for Mileage Plus – General Member

Thank you for contacting the Mileage Plus Service Center.

We have received your email and are committed to responding to your inquiry as soon as possible.

Our current response times are longer than normal due to unusually high volumes. Please allow up to 7 days for a response. We appreciate your patience and ask that you do not send follow up emails prior to this time, as it may result in further delays.

A reminder… you can visit us any time at  While online, you can manage your profile, set up your preferences and request retro credit. You also have the opportunity to print your membership card, update your account details and view current promotions.

If you have not yet traveled and need assistance with your travel plans (reservations, fares, flight information, rescheduling or seat assignments), you can access for additional information. If you prefer to speak with an agent, phone numbers are also available online at


The Mileage Plus Service Center

Wow. Aside from simply looking clueless, this suggests that unlike most modern businesses, United’s customer loyalty program doesn’t have a system that tracks open support issues. Such systems allow managing workflow, tracking statistics for continuous improvement, etc. But I bet these emails are just going to an in-box on some PC somewhere. An actual Outlook inbox, not a system.

And someone set it to send an out-of-office auto-response. And they didn’t even edit the subject line, so instead of “We received your request” it says “Out of Office.”

I especially like the threat that if you email them again (“do not send follow up emails”), it’ll cost you (“further delays”). :–)

If anyone from United is out there and would care to correct me I’d welcome it. Until then, I’ll just be amused – and wait.

Lessons for healthcare? Not all IT implementation requires being a genius. Sometimes all you need to do is think how this will look to your customer.

(Being an empowered consumer I would ordinarily write to them about this, but I received my warning and I’m not willing to risk it… :–)


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6 Responses to “An out-of-office email – from a computer”

  1. Mark Hawker says:

    Hi, Dave.

    Not really sure what you’re attacking here. I’d imagine the process to involve a human (as merging can indeed be a complex process) and so the email response is confirmation that they have received your request and will action it as soon as possible. I’d not jump to a conclusion that they don’t have any of the systems that you describe later on in the post. I agree that “out of office” has certain connotations but I wouldn’t use that to prejudice the company’s handling of your issue.

    If you are right in that they are “just going to an in-box on some PC somewhere” then your details will surely not be merged. Perhaps update us if they do get merged and we’ll know whether your argument was valid?

    • Mark Hawker says:

      p.s. Can I have my data back to correct my spelling?

      • Great question, Mark! Ladies and gents, observe the Empowered Individual: he knows what he wants (to correct his typos), he’s a bit miffed when he can’t get it (understandably, to me!), and he SPEAKS UP, asking.

        For our part, we indeed don’t have on this blog the ability for commenters to edit their own comments. I’d LOVE that – I’ve seen it elsewhere – and if anyone knows how we can add it, please let us know!

        And in the meantime, having gotten the message from Mark (via both this site and Twitter), we have old-school Live Humans who listen and do what we can.

        All fixed.

        • This ability to edit your comments or anything you write is one of the Google+’s features that is most appreciated. It’s funny how the other social media have not offered it before. I hope Dave you’ll find the right plug-in to add the feature to It does make a big difference

    • Hi Mark – I thought I was fairly clear, perhaps not:

      My stunned reaction came from the idea that I talked to a web form, and I got an “out of office” response. Out of office! Hello?? The entire department is out of office?

      I’m pretty sure they just meant “We have a big backlog,” in which case it would be fine to title the email “Thank you for your inquiry.” Auto-responders are a normal good “close the loop” process step. So I’m thinking, “Did anybody LOOK at this, to see what the customer gets?? We just told them the whole department is out of office??”

      The other thing was the implication about lacking an issue-tracking system, as I said. Industries learned years ago that anything that’s managed by inbox will have gaping holes in the workflow: things disappear without trace. That’s why technical support and customer service organizations everywhere use issue tracking systems – even low-cost CRM systems have that now.

  2. Of course, we all know that United Breaks Guitars, right?

    So, it’s probably not that surprising…

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