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.


Steve

"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." from Jim

no, it might just encourage people to complain unnecessarily to get free freebies. Putting a barrier to a complaint is probably needed to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Hiram Ortega

So, Stephen, did you get the refund from the Coach flight you took or not?

Marc

Does anyone care about customer service on airlines anymore? Don't we all just take whichever flight we find cheapest on orbitz anyway?

babs

Isn't one of the points of customer service in case something goes wrong to "feel your pain" and you know, just trying to make the impression that they care (and possibly just gather some data on how to improve, if the situation is within their control). My main gripe is the shabby customer-relations training many companies seem to have. It is *not* a job for just anybody.

I had something like this brought home to me a few days ago. When the flight was delayed the staff said basically: beyond forces of our control, the plane is in Oslo (an hours flight from where I was) is delayed and we don't know when it will be able to take off. Sorry. If you want to be angry at us and complain, please come forward.

Nobody went to the desk to complain. Strategy!

When the plane arrived, the captain came out, told us what had happened and helped with the boarding.

That was skillful customer service - and their fares are low as well! Thanks FlyNordic (Scandinavian local airline)

(the information that the plane was detained at another

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Ryan

Re: #9, maybe you've never worked for a large corporation before. In my experience, if there's one things large corporations are truly terrible at, it's analyzing ROI on anything involving an intangible value.

Matt

"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."

This makes sense based on experience. When I look for tickets, my priorities are nearly always, schedule, price, amenities, in that order. On the other hand, if I've had a particularly bad experience with an airline (Delta) I'm willing to pay $10-20 extra to avoid them and if I've had a particularly good experience with an airline (JetBlue) I'm also willing to pay $10-20 extra to use them.

It makes sense that price would matter most in the air travel industry: 1) air travel is expensive enough that for most households, air tickets represent a Significant Purchase, thus making cost reduction a primary factor; branding, with few exceptions (Southwest perhaps) has little effect (hence frequent flyer programs) 2) air travel is generally unpleasant, with security lines and searches, long waits, glaring reminders of class distinction, and anxiety about delays and missed flights. Poor airline customer service does not stand out in this environment.

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JH

Here's a story of good customer service from Delta:
I had a return flight once that was scheduled to pass through their hub in Atlanta before going to my final destination. I changed my plans and actually wanted to stay in Atlanta. Easy enough, you think, just get off the plane in Atlanta and don't get on the next flight. That would have worked, except for my bags. The ticketing agent when I checked in told me that she could only send my bags to my scheduled final destination, and if I wanted them to stop with me in Atlanta I would have to change my ticket so that Atlanta was my final destination. Of course this carried a $100 ticket-change fee. I declined.

When I got to Atlanta, I went to the gate agent and began pleading for him to get my bags and not put them on the next flights. He finally took pity on me and said he would take care of it. When my bags finally came out they were delivered by a porter who looked at me somewhat warily. From a note attached to my bags, I deduced that, in order to have my bags taken off the plane that I wasn't on, the gate agent had told the baggage handlers that I had begun acting crazy on the plane and had to be taken off forcibly. In that situation, they have to pull your bags off the plane.... All in all, an ingenious personal solution to a problem that was caused by what seems to be an unreasonable policy.

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Daniel

The post and JH´s experience reflects an individual who was willing to help but not a company policy and spirit. Obviously in a huge company like most airlines is difficult not to have a problem with employees being rude to customers. You, I and everybody have a bad day and gets with a bad humor sometimes and in a company with 30000 employees, with a lot of stress situations, bad customer care situations are very common and very difficult to handle.

On a small company like the one of the sports entrepreneur it's easy to have a more personal and optimal customer service, but on a airline it's a lot harder because you need to know exactly what happened, need to now if the guy is not lying (to get free stuff or a compensation) and, of course, you need to have a satisfied employee who really cares. Basically the airline needs to invest on its workforce, but not only with those who deal with customers.

I work for a airline here in south america and recently we started an internal campaign to motivate our people to be more attentive, happy and empathic, not only with customers, but with each other! If you work on a positive and helpful enviroment you´ll tend to be positive and helpful too...

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Heelo

I'm SO sick and tired of everyone complaining about how awful the airline service/food/etc is, when the reality is that the vast majority of people choose their flights according to the lowest price, even if the difference is as little as $25 (flight times and stops being equal).

People always point to Southwest and point out that the company with the highest customer service ratings is also the most profitable. But what they rarely point out is that their business model is based on running flights out of cheaper second-tier airports and minimizing turnaround times between flights. Their customer service contributes to their profitability indirectly at best.

Paul

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).

Chris

@Paul

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

Chris

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

Theo

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.

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Brian

Paul,
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.

Trav

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."

Ileana

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.

Jim

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.

John

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.

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mary

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. ; )

Bill

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?