Monday, March 5, 2018

What Delta Airlines could learn from Trader Joe's


A Delta Airlines flight from Kansas City to Atlanta landed 43 minutes late, leaving us with a very tight connection. After running through the airport, my wife and I found the once-daily flight to Turks & Caicos had left early. Then, the harried and overworked personnel at the 'Need Help' desk made matters worse by failing to display any empathy at all.

In 'Build a Brand Like Trader Joe's' I wrote about Gardiner's Fourth Law of Marketing, which goes, "No one loves you as much as a customer who just hated you." 

What that means is, when a customer's been wronged and has a complaint, as a brand, you have that customer's full attention. By caring, and making things right, a brand can turn a disgruntled customer into a real evangelist.

That's a lesson lost on Delta.

We did ultimately get 'assistance', I suppose. But this sign would be more accurate if it read, "Need Help? Good luck."
We booked a journey from Kansas City to Providenciales, Turks & Caicos. Since our Kansas City flight left at 0600, we took the precaution of booking an airport hotel the previous night. 

Although our flight boarded on time, it took off significantly late after a 20-minute wait for deicing—something that surely should have been anticipated in Kansas City in February.

Very late in the approach to Atlanta—within sight of the runway, long after the gear had gone down, at an altitude that, according to FlightAware must have been less than 500 feet—the pilot waved off the landing. Neither my wife nor I are particularly nervous flyers, but that was a first for me. After a long, long time, we were told that the landing had been aborted due to rain on the runway, and we were “in vectors”. The net result was that we arrived 43 minutes late. That left us less than half an hour before our second flight was scheduled to depart.

One large group flying to a wedding in the Caribbean was told their plane was waiting for them.It would have been very helpful if Delta personnel on the flight could have made an announcement asking people traveling to Atlanta, or with reasonable connections, to let people with tight connections leave the plane first. There was no effort to expedite deplaning for those of us with tight connections.

We ran through the airport, and arrived 8 minutes before scheduled departure, only to find the door to the jetway closed with the jet still there. According to FlightAware, Delta 509 departed early, even thought the crew had to know that there were transferring passengers on the ground. Let that sink in: someone at Delta decided to leave early, while there were passengers running to the gate.

What could we have done, yelled at someone at our arrival gate, to phone ahead to our departure gate? Would they have done so? Earlier that morning in Kansas City, Delta ticketing personnel told us they could not give us a seat assignment for our flight from Atlanta to Providenciales. If we had seat assignments, would they have held the plane? That lack of a seat assignment was certainly not our fault; we’d gone to expense and trouble to ensure we could check in in Kansas City in plenty of time.

Later on, a Delta customer service agent informed us, “They just told us that they weren’t going to hold flights for just two or three people any more,” but is this a reasonable policy when there's only one flight a day?  Note that the door to the jetway was closed and there was no Delta personnel at the gate eight minutes before the one departure for that day. Less than five minutes would have made a difference of 24 hours for two of the passengers.

We watched helplessly while the plane stayed attached to the jetway for several more minutes; my wife ran to the nearest staffed gate, where she was told, “Go to the ‘Need Help’ sign.” Then the jetway moved back off the plane and it left, without us, for Turks & Caicos.

An added layer of irony comes from knowing that Atlanta is Delta's headquarters, and the airport's the airline's biggest hub by far. If Delta can't provide good customer service here, where can it do so? Most of these passengers are in this line because inbound flights were delayed. The implication is that Delta should be able to forecast demand at this desk hours ahead.

We waited at Delta's ‘Need Help’ desk for over an hour, while a total of three customer service agents worked at a counter with a dozen work stations. We didn't have any other flight options, but other people in line did, and some of their options vanished while they waited. There was one customer service phone position, and we overheard someone say that hold times on the phone were over two hours.

At one point, a customer who had just walked away from the Need Help desk turned back to ask one more question, to which customer service employee sternly replied “Ask Delta!” 

“Ask Delta!” said the person who was the face of Delta at that moment.

When we finally got our turn, a harried and overworked customer service agent then told us, we’d get a hotel voucher but no food allowance—"We don’t do that any more.”

What’s the rationale for that? We do provide accommodation, but we expect you to spend 24 hours waiting for the one flight a day without eating? It defies logic.

We were told our suitcase was going to the warehouse. We had a choice of waiting several hours to have it retrieved, or spend 24 hours in some airport district hotel with only the clothes on our backs. 

The following day we arrived early only to find that due to mechanical problems our plane had to be changed, resulting in what was initially forecast as a 20 minute delay. When Mary wanted to ask a question about the delay, three Delta employees at the gate desk stared at their personal phones for 45 seconds before even acknowledging the presence of a paying customer at the desk.

Then when we’d boarded, we were told the catering crew didn’t supply enough bottled water for the flight causing another delay. After a total of two hours’ delay and after takeoff we were informed that they hadn’t filled up the plane’s drinking water tanks, so there would be no coffee service, and there was no water available for hand-washing in the bathrooms.

We are independent contractors, we don’t get paid vacations. That means that every vacation day is precious. And, a wasted day in Atlanta is effectively a day that we could have been working.

  • We rented a car and hotel room that went unused, which begs the question: Where could Delta have done better?Why let us book a tight connection to a destination with one flight per day, with such foreseeable delays, without at least warning us?
  • The pilot took a long, long time to explain the baffling first attempt at landing, which was waved off in sight of the runway at  an altitude of less than a thousand feet.
  • Why not at least try to let passengers with very tight connections get off the plane first?
  • How hard would it have been to contact crew of next flight to say, Hold for these people who are late through no fault of their own? Or least, don’t leave early!
  • Isn’t it reasonable to use a different standard in terms of holding for delayed passengers, when the destination is served by only one flight per day?

Ironically, I’m the author of popular business book on the topic of customer service. In ‘Build a Brand Like Trader Joe’s’ I devote a chapter to ‘Gardiner’s Fourth Law of Business’ which is; “No one loves you as much as a customer who just hated you.” You guys could have made all this right with an empathetic customer service agent empowered to make a difference, or even providing a human email address when I specifically asked for one.

All along the way we were met with cold, defensive employees who had no time to listen to our concerns and were only interested in divesting themselves of responsibility. Obviously, Delta has not empowered their employees to care for their customers. Your investment in advertising would generate better returns if it was allocated to better equip employees with soft skills like empathy and compassion. 

The way we were handled added to our distress causing us to feel helpless instead of valued. Mary posted about our experience on FB and it garnered many comments from others saying they’d had similar experiences. Imagine if you could turn those people into fans rather than disgruntled former customers.

So, what did this debacle cost us?
  • The night we spent at the airport Marriott in Kansas City served no purpose: $77.77
  • Uber to the Kansas City hotel, because we were only going there to sleep and it was too late to ask a friend for a ride: $25.87
  • AirBnB night in Turks & Caicos: $276.64
  • Meal in Atlanta: $36.22
  • Breakfast in Atlanta airport: $13.22
  • One sixth of our vacation, the first in years: Priceless

I'd honestly like to see Delta do better, and help them do better. In my time at Trader Joe's, I came to realize just how much of an impact front-line customer service staff have on brand value. This is precisely the kind of thing companies pay me to help them with: choosing, training, and empowering employees to show empathy and build strong relationships with customers.