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Good Customer Service Skills: 4 Lessons from Delta

I wasn’t even supposed to be on this flight…
I’m writing this post on flight from Atlanta to Montreal. The last twelve hours, which I spent in Atlanta, were an exhausted and frustrated mess of delays, apathetic airline staff, and a complimentary hotel room with a sign urging me to deadbolt the door for my own protection.

I’m not writing this post to vent, though you can look forward to at least a bit of venting. I’m writing this post because it’s pretty unusual for most businesses to make so many different mistakes all in one night.

(Unless you’re an airline, a phone company, or a bank!)

I’ve got a list of lessons to share with you (and anyone from Delta who might be reading this!).

Let’s start with the story…
I spent the weekend in Myrtle Beach, on a consulting project with a new restaurant chain called Just Chicken. They serve (you guessed it) chicken – and honestly, it’s pretty great chicken. If you’re reading this and are going to be in the North Myrtle Beach area, you should check them out.

So I was down there for the weekend, consulting, and yesterday I was supposed to catch a flight back to Montreal via Atlanta. The flight to Atlanta was delayed by about an hour and a half because the plane was late; my connection was scheduled to take off at 8:49pm, and we landed at 8:35pm.

First I Missed My Flight…

I ran to my gate, and the plane was still there, but the door was closed, and they wouldn’t open it to let me get on board. I was polite, and they could see that I was out of breath (haven’t done much running since the marathon), and they barely looked up from their screen. They just said “It’s already closed.”

I asked them what to do next, and they said “go talk to customer service”, waving vaguely to their left.

I made my way to customer service, on the other end of the terminal, and got in one of the lines. The line I was in didn’t move for half an hour; the guy at the desk seemed to be on the phone, ignoring the ever-growing line of people in front of him. I moved over to the other line, which moved at a pace of about one person every 10-15 minutes.

(Unbeknown to us, there were phones to remote customer service agents right behind us… someone eventually figured it out, and then we discovered that most of the phones were out of order!)

I finally got to the front of the line, and the service agent booked me on a flight for the next morning, gave me a voucher to spend the night at a hotel, and directed me to the shuttle service. It was around 9:30pm by then, I hadn’t eaten since lunch, and they didn’t give me a voucher for a meal (I asked!).

Then I Waited For The Shuttle…

I made my way to the shuttle service, which was supposed to be leaving “shortly”. It finally arrived about half an hour later, and we shuttled over to the hotel. On the shuttle, commiserating with the other passengers, someone mentioned that they fly regularly for work, and that this happens on a semi-regular basis. She asked rhetorically what “DELTA” stands for, and then explained that it’s an acronym for “Doesn’t Even Leave The Airport”. Some brand identity they’re building, huh?

At the hotel, people were friendly, but that didn’t make up for the room being cold, the $13 meal that I ordered consisting of a tiny piece of microwave chicken and some fries, and their forgetting the bottle of water that I asked for with the meal – not to mention the sticker by the door that urged me latch and deadbolt the door while inside the room, for my own safety!

The next morning, after a few hours of sleep, I made my way back to the airport, went through security, and waited for my flight. The plane sat on the ground for an hour with us inside it, waiting for our luggage to be loaded onto it.

Finally, we take off, and the flight attendant reads off a card (sounding like she isn’t even aware of what she’s actually saying) that they appreciate our business, and are truly committed to having good customer service skills. Sigh.

Some Lessons for Delta (and you!)

Okay, let’s go through all this and find the customer service tips (if anyone from Delta is reading this and actually WANTS to improve customer service, send me an email!):

Lesson #1: Be Understanding

I understand that Delta can’t control the weather, and that sometimes planes will be late. I also understand that there are airline procedures, and if you open the door for every late passenger, you’ll never get off the ground.

But Delta needs to understand that I trusted them to get me from point A to point B at the time they had printed on my ticket. They need to understand that missing a flight is stressful, that half a dozen meetings will have to be rescheduled, and that I’m hungry and tired.

Lesson #2: Be Apologetic

Understanding the inconvenience and frustration that they’ve caused means that they owe me an apology. Instead of “the doors are closed” and “go talk to customer service”, they need to say “we’re sorry that you missed your flight, and we want to help make it right and get you home.”

Delta may not be able to fix everything. They can’t magically make another plane appear, and they can’t afford to buy dinner for everyone who misses a flight – I get that. But the least they can do is apologize: “we’re sorry, we understand that you’re hungry, but there’s nothing right now that I can do.”

Lesson #3: Be Honest

Don’t tell me that the plane or the shuttle will be leaving “shortly” if I’m going to have to wait half an hour; I may prefer to hear that it’s leaving shortly over hearing that it leaves every hour on the hour, but they shouldn’t tell me that if it isn’t true!

People are much more understanding when their expectations are managed and they feel understood than when they feel like they’ve been lied to, and fed slogans that don’t mean anything. (Committed to good customer service skills, my ass!)

Lesson #4: Be Proactive

This one may be a little beyond the ability of Delta’s apathetic culture to execute, but for you, our reader, it can be a real competitive advantage.

Delta operated my flight from Myrtle Beach to Atlanta, and they operated the flight from Atlanta to Montreal. They knew that the first flight was delayed, and that the second flight was leaving on time – which means that they should have been able to figure out that I was going to miss my connection.

So why didn’t they have the people at the gate ready to tell me that “we’re sorry, but the flight has left, and if you go over to customer service, they’ll be happy to make it right”

Or better yet… “We’re sorry, but the flight has left, and here is the alternate flight that we’ve booked you on, and here is your voucher for the hotel.”

Or even better than that… why couldn’t they have told the person at the gate that I came out of to give me that message? Why did I even have to run to the other terminal?

If you can anticipate that something is not going to go according to plan, think of a plan B and tell your customers, before they come to you and complain. They will probably appreciate it, and even if they don’t, they still won’t be as frustrated as they otherwise would have been.

“Please Switch Off Your Laptop…”

Okay, that’s all four lessons, and they’re telling me that I have to switch off my laptop, because we’re about to land. Please keep your fingers crossed for them not to have lost my luggage!


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