Maybe This Guy Should Be Running Delta Air Lines

I recently blogged about a suboptimal customer service experience with Delta Air Lines. (As a couple of commenters pointed out — see Nos. 28, 36, and 44 — one of my assumptions was probably wrong, but that doesn’t change the thrust of the story very much.) So it’s nice to report a really good customer service experience.

We recently had a birthday party for one of my kids. My wife hired a small entrepreneur who runs an outfit called Simply Sports. He organizes summer sports camps, after-school programs, etc. In New York City, there’s a big market for such a product. The party was held in a gigantic public school gym and most of the kids had a great time playing dodgeball and flag football, and generally making mayhem. Then it was downstairs to the cafeteria for pizza and cake.

My wife had been expecting the Simply Sports boss to run the party. Instead, he sent a lieutenant and another guy. My wife had been expecting that the cafeteria would be all cleaned up and ready to host the party. Instead, she and a bunch of other moms had to hustle to scrub ketchup off the tables, etc.

Because my wife really likes the guy who runs Simply Sports and wants his business to succeed, she called him after the party to offer him some feedback. It should be said that she has had a lot of experience, both as a professional and a mom, with customer service interactions. She never berates, never loses her cool, and in this case she explicitly said she wasn’t asking for anything, no refund or apology, but she just wanted to let the guy know that he stood a better chance of success if he sharpened up his act.

So what did he do? He offered her a free one-hour sports session with him or one of his coaches for up to 12 kids.

Nice? Yes. Smart? Also yes. He’ll keep an existing customer by acknowledging and fixing a mistake; and he’ll have a chance to win new customers in the process when 11 other parents send their kids to this free sports playdate.

The Simply Sports guy probably isn’t the least bit interested in the job, but maybe he should be running Delta.


I think Delta would go out of business if they gave a freebie every time someone complained. It's OK when one customer out of many has a bad experience, but when you have thousands per day, I don't think that would work. (Note I'm not supporting bad service, I'm just Delta probably has so much of it they would go out of business if they took the above approach).



If that 1 freebie turned into 11 new customers, I'd say they would definitely not go out business over it.


So Delta shouldn't attempt to qualm unsatisfied customers because they have so many? This seems like a perpetuating problem to me.


I disagree with Paul entirely. The point here is not freebies for complaints. The point is good customer service and doing what you can to fix customer service issues.

This is something that frustrates the hell out of me, in business models all over the place. In a service industry (which all industries really are imho), making your customer happy is the best way to suceed. You don't make your customer happy by offering a freebie when they complain, that's a one-off apology. You make your customer happy by surprising them with how good you are at what you do.

For an Airline, what would be your expected 'decent' level of service? For me it's something like, Affordable, comfortable, reliable travel that doesn't lose my luggage or give me excessive hoops to jump through. Now, imagine how loyal I would be to an airline that not only met my 'decent' criteria, but exceeded them enormously.

The point is managing your customer interaction to make it pleasant, surprisingly enjoyable, as well as profitable. It's not too hard if you're willing to give up the corporate dogma and start with the basics.



If you're having thousands of complaints per day (and if this makes up a significant portion of your client base) then I think giving away freebies is the least of your problems.


With the premise that "good" service is only recognized when you exceed the customer's initial expectation. Then when you fail to even meet the expectations, then you must do what they do at perhaps the most reputable hotel chain in the world...apologize profusely! As a colleague who has done consulting with them said: "Although they try to be the best, they often fail. And when they do nobody apologizes better."


I somewhat agree with the first comment... if Delta gave out a free flight for every person that complains it would not be very profitable, but they could do something else. Acknowledging that you made an error is not above anyone or any company... however Delta could issue a set of courtesy coupons for you and a friend... that way they ensure that you will utilize the coupon and that a friend will also be using the other.


Giving away a freebie to disgruntled customers would certainly be an incentive to reduce the number of them, especially if it came out of the pockets of the servers.


Maybe I am incorrect. But for large multinational corporations with maybe a few exceptions, they all most likely do cost benefit analysis on how much bad feedback they can get and still have people use there services because of the very few choices consumers have. This happens in telecommunications, insurance, banking, airlines, and many other industries I would assume. This model seems well established and I see no sign of it changing as things become more and more automated and diluted. When you are dealing with a small company that operates primarily in New York, and has a client base that likely is in the same income bracket and talks to each other, then it makes perfect sense to admit wrongdoings and try to correct them because the ramifications for doing otherwise do not outweigh the benefits of dealing with it. But in the case of Delta and many others, they are operating within some complaint:happiness ratio that is conducive for continuing business, and not having to worry about the customer. The reason seems obvious, they are focused solely on business figures because that is the "proper behavior" for a large multinational.



My sister has been a pilot for United for decades. She tells me that whenever the airlines do customer surveys, the customers tell them again and again that they want LOWER FARES, not better service, not better food, not comfy seats, not more leg room, etc.

But, hey, maybe the president of Delta should've offered you an hour sports session with him and 12 of your friends. ; )


All of the points mentioned about customer service are certainly relevant. However, with regards to air travel, expectations surely need to subside since it has essentially evolved into another form of mass transportation. After all, how much time does one spend complaining about the service offered by bus, subway or light rail travel?

DG Lewis

I recently flew from Atlanta to Newark on Continental Airlines. Due to bad weather in Newark, the incoming plane was delayed; while it was enroute, thunderstorms hit Atlanta and the plane got diverted to Nashville. In Nashville, the jetway operator banged the jetway into the side of the plane, grounding it.

Oh, and it was the last scheduled CO flight from Atlanta to Newark that day.

So while I'm standing in line, I use my smartphone to pull up CO's Contract of Carriage, expecting I'm going to have to argue with them about what they're going to give me. Not that it matters to me, personally, since I'm traveling on business and my company will pay any extra costs I incur, but still.

I get to the podium and the gate agent tells me that they've made a hotel reservation for me and will give me a voucher to cover the cost, and asks me if I'd like to be on the first flight out tomorrow. No, I answer; I've got a conference call in the morning, so I'll take it from the hotel and fly out around noon. OK, no problem - she books me on the noon flight, and since I won't be leaving until noon, she'll give me a meal voucher for lunch tomorrow in addition to the ones she was going to give me for dinner tonight and breakfast. Oh, and my boarding pass for tomorrow's flight is Elite Access (pre-boarding), and they've given me a voucher for a free Business/First upgrade on any future domestic flight.

This, when they could have blamed weather for the cancellation and screwed me and 100 other passengers over.

I will now continue to fly Continental whenever I can. So their plan worked, I guess.



I have to admit when I fly I take the cheapest version regardless of customer service and I suspect there may be many people like me. So maybe it isn't in Delta's interest to have good customer service except for the business/first class people.


A bit off topic, but my father was an airplane inspector and he hated working with Delta. Apparently they have policy problems at all levels of their bureaucracy, not just customer service.

matt m

I suppose a key difference is that the small scale service provider trusted your wife-- while sorting out whiners, scam artists, and people out for a free lunch from customers with legitimate complaints is a big concern for a large business. If you start giving out bonuses to people with whiney complaints, isn't that giving them an incentive?

Compensating folks for their losses, as well as admitting fault, is certainly a key part of running an ethical business- that's where Delta erred. The reality is that I spent a lot of my time in customer service dealing with people that were demanding unreasonable compensation for things that were not anyone's fault. (A woman screaming she would never shop at our store again because we raised the price of coffee 20% in response to a temporary global shortage that pushed up wholesale prices 25% comes to mind. She wanted to pay last week's price...perhaps with a better understanding of simple macroeconomics she would understand she was partially responsible for the demand side of the equation.)

Another key difference is that your wife made it clear that she wasn't out for a free lunch, thus allowing the service provider the freedom to be generous, whereas many complainers begin with their demands. I have a feeling she is a shrewd negotiator. One key to dealing with customer service is not to go in there looking for a handout, but with a genuine shared interest in improving the service for you and all customers in the future.



It seems incongruent to me that your wife "wasn't asking for anything, no refund or apology" yet you are pleased with the result - a freebie, which is essentially a form of a refund.


That guy responded very well for a small business, but an air line is drastically different. Someone who is "running" an airline has to consider customer service in advance and can't afford to wait until a customer complains about something as basic as cleaning up after an event. Simply Sports guy is learning but certainly isn't ready for Delta Airlines.


In fact, Continental did just this for my wife and me - a 150 dollar coupon good toward any flight simply because our flight to Paris was delayed 5 hours. I thought it was a really nice and savvy gesture - unnecessary but likely to keep me coming back again and again (and I can choose between 4 major carriers given where I live). We made no fuss, BTW - in fact, I thought the whole planeload of folks was remarkably cool about the whole thing.


Did all of the intelligent Freakonomics readers take a vacation day today??


"whenever the airlines do customer surveys, the customers tell them again and again that they want LOWER FARES, not better service, not better food, not comfy seats, not more leg room, etc"

You may have misunderstood her - actually, surveys nearly always say customers want all that stuff, especially legroom. It's actual observation of customer behavior that demonstrates the surveys are baloney. The traveling public brutally punishes airlines that suffer from the misconception that customers care about anything but price. The only thing I've seen to date that the customer base in general will pay extra for is live TV on the airplane.