Delta and the 7 Guiding Principles of Customer Service

By Dawn Shuler

We were recently on vacation, and we got on vacation by flying from the Washington, D.C. area to Sitka, Alaska.  Even though we used our Alaska Airlines miles to book our flight, part of our flight was routed on Delta, one of their partner airlines.

You know where this is going already, don’t you?

Yep, there were problems.

First (and isn’t that sad that there’s going to more than one point?), we didn’t get any notification that our flight had been cancelled until 10 minutes before we got to the airport, which wasn’t helpful.  We walked into the airport, and we were visually slammed by the wall of people standing in multiple lines.  After a few minutes, we ascertained the lay of the land. Our flight indeed had been cancelled, and, funny enough (or not), when I called Delta’s main number, the recorded message played, “I’m sorry. That number is no longer in service.”  Problem two.

I went back to where my family was standing in one of the two lines. It looked as if the  lines went to two different counters.  Seemed an okay set-up…. two lines, two counters.

So after some length of time, it became clear that people in the left line weren’t going anywhere as the counter had no agent.  The left line started to merge into the right (our line), and we started to hear horror stories about people who had been in the airport since 4am, or were even there the second day in a row, trying to deal with cancelled flights yet another day.  Plus, there were some people who had real flights and needed to check-in, but they were stuck in this line that went on forever.

My third issue is that we had no Delta representative telling us what was going on, where to be, what line to stand in, etc. We were a herd of frustrated, confused people, some getting angrier by the second.

Hating inefficiency as I do, I walked up to the counter, waiting for a break between customers, to kindly suggest that they bring a person out to navigate traffic.  Well, someone else who hated inefficiency even more shoved her way to the ticket counter and said, “Hey, people out here don’t know what to do. You need to get someone down here right now.”

Someone from Delta did show up finally and told people who had real flights to be in the right line, and everyone else who needed “Special Services” to be in the left.  Fine.  Well, sort of fine, except there was one person who was helping people in the Special Services line.

Now we get to one of the seven Guiding Principles of Customer Service…

In times of crisis, call in more troops.  Just like with the Reserves line of the military, have a system to implement when you need more warm bodies to help out.

Fourth, in the 4-1/2 hours that we were in line, a Delta representative came around TWICE – only twice – to manage crowd control.  In my opinion, from a customer as well as a smart business standpoint, there should have been someone out there with us the entire time.

Sure, he would have been talking with some unhappy people, but it was necessary, as Guiding Principle of Customer Service #2 is…

People just want to be heard and acknowledged, so your customer service department’s main job is to hear and acknowledge your customers.

Now back to our regularly scheduled program.

During those 4 1/2 hours in line, we made friends; we commiserated; we made the best of this situation.  One of the things we did was to name other people in line.  There was Passport Guy, who was leading a large group of students, and so he had a stack of about 12 passports tucked under his arm.  Then, Happy Baby Guy did a great job keeping his one-year old entertained.  Then, Gesticulating Lady who was really unhappy and in tears.

Since Passport Guy was in front of us and our circle of peeps, we started taking bets at how long it would take the one agent at Special Services to help him.  Once he got to the counter, I started a timer on my phone.  (What else are you going to do in line for 4 1/2 hours?) The agent talked to him for a bit, got on the phone, and then Passport Guy also got on the phone. Finally, they moved him off to the side and helped other people as whatever he needed to do in the background happened.  We ended up being one of those people helped in the meantime, and by the time we left the counter, the timer was up to 1 hour, 43 minutes.  I have no idea how his situation turned out.

While we were in line, we heard all sorts of stories, like that the CEO had announced on Monday (this was Wednesday) that all issues had been taken care of.  Of course, that wasn’t the case, and it wasn’t clear what had happened.

Guiding Principle of Customer Service #3:

Keep your customers up-to-date on problems, what caused them, how you’re making it right, and how you’ll make sure it won’t happen again.

Back to our mess….

Because we had made our original reservation through Alaska Airlines, they’re actually the ones who helped us the most by getting us on a non-stop flight from Dulles to Seattle that night.  Of course, that meant that we would have to get from BWI to Dulles somehow and be overnight in Seattle so that we could get on a 6:20am flight to Sitka the next morning.  So, when I got to the Delta agent, I was prepared for what we needed:  taxi vouchers to get us from BWI to Dulles, food vouchers since we were going to be stuck in airports for over 24 hours, and a hotel voucher since we would have to overnight unexpectedly in Seattle.

To Delta’s credit, we did get the taxi and food vouchers, but the agent told us, “Hotels aren’t available. You can’t get a hotel.”  When I pressed her, saying, “My understanding is that if you strand a traveler, you have to provide a hotel,” she reluctantly said, “The hotels are already filled with people who are stranded. There’s no more room.”

Well, it turns out that, after talking to 5 people in person, and 3 people on the phone, that was false information.  When we got to Seattle that night, I talked to a Delta agent at Special Services (no lines there!), and she got us two rooms at the local Doubletree.  Nice! (So, another point for Delta coming through – sort of.)

In addition, the same agent also told us that the baggage fee we had paid to check our bags would not be processed… no flight, no bag to check, no fee charged.  That sounded reasonable to me, but two days later, yep, the charge went through.  I called Delta Customer Service, and the agent told me that Delta was automatically refunding all baggage charges for cancelled flights, and I should see that within seven days.  Seven days went by, and no refund.  I called again (at the end, I’ll give you my total tally on how many contacts I made through this fiasco), and the agent told me that no automatic refunds are ever given and a case had to be opened.  Now a case was opened, and it would be seven business days for the refund to show up, about three weeks after this all started.

Guiding Principle of Customer Service #4:

Make sure your employees up and down the chain are given proper information and well-trained on various scenarios , especially with fairly common situations, like refunds.

One of the things I was impressed with flying with Alaska Airlines is that their staff helped us out as much as possible, and they never had to call a supervisor or manager. They were able to make decisions in the moment, and we felt very well taken care of. Guiding Principle of Customer Service #5:

Give your people authority and power to make decisions.  Empower your people, and they will feel like they are an integral part of the organization.  This empowerment also comes from sharing with them the company’s mission and goals, and making that mission part of their everyday worklife.  Then, when you add the respect and the regard that empowerment brings, you have a dynamic, capable workforce.

Lastly (thank goodness, you say), I was surprised at the lack of empathy from Delta Airlines employees.  Now, to be fair (somewhat fair), they had probably been dealing nonstop with unhappy people for days.  Still, since the general public isn’t talking directly to the CEO of Delta (shame, that), those agents and customer service representatives ARE the company.

So, Guiding Principle of Customer Service #6:

Every employee who comes into contact with your customers and prospects represents your company.  To that person, he/she IS your company.

Alaska Airlines people were very empathetic, and, as I’ve said before, they moved heaven and earth (and airplanes, evidently) to help us out.  Of the 12 people I talked to at Delta (yes, 12), only one person said she was sorry that we had to deal with this situation.  One person.

Guiding Principle of Customer Service #7:

Train your employees to be empathetic and to understand that they’re dealing with people, people with stories, lives, bad days, bad situations, problems at work, problems at home, dreams, goals, etc.

In other words, know that the person standing in front of you, or on the other end of the phone, or at the end of the Internet connection is  a real person with a real life.  We can never know all that is going on with someone else, but the more we can remember that we don’t know the whole story, we might be a bit more empathetic.

By the time this particular story came to a close for me, I had 18 touch points: 5 in person, and 13 on the phone.  As a result, I got my baggage fee refunded, and a $50 check mailed to me.  No travel vouchers for $200 each as promised, but I’m letting that one go.  (I don’t really want to fly Delta again, anyway.)

If you own a business or are an employee of someone else’s business, remember that you’re always part of customer service anytime you come into contact (in person, phone, or email) with someone else.  Keep these 7 Guiding Principles of Customer Service in mind.

As a final send-off to wrap things up on a humorous note, enjoy comedian’s John Mulaney’s own issue with Delta.