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Merrill Aldrich

What Not to Do: Devastating Lessons in Poor Customer Service from Delta Airlines

I work in a customer-service centered organization, one, in fact, that is literally owned by its customers. Our customers and our “shareholders” are the same people. Just now I am coming off of a vacation and headed to the PASS Summit next week.

Also, as I write this, I happen to be stranded at the airport in Atlanta, with my wife and two small boys, reviewing in my mind an astonishingly bad experience earlier today with Delta Airlines’ staff. You, dear reader, won’t want to sit through a simple rant about how unpleasant that experience was, since everyone who flies has some horror story, but I am trying to turn it into something positive with lessons for me in my professional life. So in this post, interwoven, is the story of how the airline caused us to miss our flight and suffer a six hour delay, over a $10 mistake they themselves made, and lessons I am taking away about how to not make those errors in my own work.

Understand What your Customer Cannot Know

Lesson 1: I will remember not to assume my “customers,” internal or external, magically know how the internal workings of our technology operate at my company. That’s my job to know, not theirs. I am guilty of this sometimes in my work as a Database Administrator; it’s almost too easy to slide into an attitude where I expect others to know how the systems I maintain work. That’s not fair.

The first thing that happened to us today, once we’d gotten up early and driven the 150 miles to the airport, is that we checked in, as usual, at the self-service kiosk, about two hours ahead of our flight. We had two suitcases and two child car seats to check. The reasonable thing to do these days is to check one suitcase and one car seat against each ticket, because it saves ten bucks since the airlines started charging per bag. That is, it’s currently $25 for one bag and $35 for an additional bag through Delta on the same ticket, so you save by spreading the bags around. The car seats fly free. We made our best effort to indicate that arrangement via the electronic kiosk with the onscreen instructions, but the kiosk is primitive and you can’t really be specific. The options are, roughly, “how many things are you taking” and “are any of them ‘special,’” meaning not suitcases. Plus, I suppose I may be technology-challenged, being a mere professional database administrator by day, responsible for systems that about 700,000 users interact with. But at the kiosk we gave it our best shot.

Ask

Lesson 2: I will then guide my customers by asking questions rather than assume that they can intuit all the workings of the system I manage. This will help them, and me, prevent mistakes.

We next had to go to the typical “bag drop” where they weigh the suitcases and label everything. I came to find out much later that it matters a great deal precisely what order you place the bags onto the scale. The clerk at this station was entirely unhelpful, and gave no guidance whatsoever. She booked two suitcases on one ticket, though that was not the intent. She then charged me $60 instead of $50, informing me only afterward. I objected, obviously, both because I didn’t fancy being ripped off and because it seemed like such a simple thing to fix: refund me $10. This is where Delta’s customer service went totally, comically off the rails.

Know and Act

Lesson 3: I will make some effort to understand processes that my company follows, even outside my specific responsibilities, so that I can take meaningful action when a problem arises. Again, it is not my customer’s problem when a corporate process is dysfunctional.

At this point the clerk informed me that it was impossible for her to reverse the transaction or refund me the $10 at her location, and that I would have to collect all my bags, and my wife and kids, and take everyone fifty yards to a customer service location called “Kiosk Assistance.” She also informed me that this was my own fault, because she’d checked the bags in exactly as I had directed her to, based on the order in which, without any instruction or acknowledgement from her, I had placed the bags on the scale. I had no idea this mattered, but she was quite insistent that we acknowledge that we were to blame for this, and that she remain blameless, which I found odd because up to this point I hadn’t expressed any desire to find fault – I just wanted my ten bucks. But I was beginning to get angry, I will admit.

Avoid Assigning Blame

Lesson 4: I will not blame my customer for errors, nor berate them, most especially for errors I’ve made or that my organization has made. Someone who excels at customer service would rarely blame a customer for anything short of really egregious behavior, but it’s especially stupid to ruin a customer relationship over something so trivial as the blame for an incorrect ten-dollar charge.

We moved to the designated Kiosk Assistance desk, and, bafflingly, things continued downhill. After waiting several minutes for one of two free staff members to decide to  address us,  I opened with a smile and, “This is simple – the baggage drop desk overcharged me by $10.” I figured we’d be on our way in a couple of minutes.

Instead, the person at this counter assumed that I was attempting to cheat the airline, and refused even to listen to an explanation of why I was owed the $10. She insisted that she would look up the information in the computer because I was not likely to be telling the truth. She did look it up, and then proceeded to argue with me, as the previous staff member had, that this was my fault. We then, amazingly, got into a 15 minute conversation about whether I would have to move my family and all our belongings back to the first desk whence we had come, or stay at this desk to resolve the issue.

Listen

Lesson 5: I will listen to my customers. The content of the conversation doesn’t even matter; the fact is that if you refuse, at a basic level, to listen to what another human being is saying then that person will, justifiably, feel at least alienated and probably angry. For no good reason other than your refusal to pay attention.

At this point it became clear that the person I was working with could not solve this issue. A supervisor came over, and I was momentarily hopeful through my growing rage. Alas, that hope was misplaced, because we didn’t actually miss our flight until he got involved.

The supervisor took one of our boarding passes and headed back over to the original counter to speak to the first staff person about reversing the charge. I discovered later that he was wrong and she was right – it’s not possible to reverse the charge at the baggage drop counter. Delta has not, apparently, discovered that computers can be programmed and reprogrammed to manage such complex tasks. When he left, the clerk in front of me said, quote, “They have three minutes before they’ll miss the flight.” The supervisor was gone for fifteen minutes, boarding pass in hand.

Skip the Trivia

Lesson 6: Give the Customer Ten Dollars, for <insert colorful language>’s Sake. When working with my customers I will conscientiously be aware of the point of diminishing returns, where what I am doing for or to them is actually interfering with what they are trying to accomplish.

At some point in this process, things could have gone one of five or six other ways, with a better outcome for everyone. I would gladly have traded the ten dollars for the chance to get my kids, 2 and 5, and my wife onto the plane and not spend eight hours in the airport. But with no boarding pass that would be impossible.

Someone could have said, “Here’s ten bucks, its more important that you make your flight.”

Someone could have said, “I’m very sorry Mr. Aldrich, but it’s more important for you to make your flight so I will make sure we credit your card $10, please go to the gate.”

Someone could have said, “I’m very sorry, that was our mistake, but if you’ll forgive us the error you can still make your flight.”

And on. And on.

To be fair, at this point I was red faced, irate, and attempting with only limited success not to yell. I am usually pretty civilized, and I am very sensitive to the pressure that public-facing service people are under on an average day. I respect that. But the combination of blaming us plus the group’s absurd inability to solve a simple ten-dollar issue, in the context of the cost of four airline tickets, sent me pretty well around the bend. I seemed it could not get worse. How naïve I am. This is where the story goes from funny to surreal.

I spent a full hour at that second counter, 15 minutes arguing about what had happened, 15 more waiting for the supervisor to discover that it was impossible for the baggage drop person, a member of the very team he allegedly runs, to refund the money, and then 30 more minutes waiting to be rebooked on a flight departing about six hours later than we originally were to fly. At which point the clerk turns to me and says, amazingly, “The rebooking people told me to tell you that this is a one time favor, rebooking you without charging you the usual $50 per ticket fee, and that we’ll do this as a courtesy despite the fact that you arrived at the airport too late to properly check your bags, and for us to correct the mistake you made at the baggage drop.”

She then charged me $50 for the bags. With a smile. Any sane person would have waived the baggage fee for me, having made me miss my flight. I’m sure of it.

Here’s the last lesson, which, apparently I have to repeat, since I was blamed for the whole situation four or five times by three separate Delta staffers:

Avoid Assigning Blame

Lesson 7: I will not blame my customer for errors, nor berate them, most especially for errors I’ve made or that my organization has made.

Lastly, adding to the fun: I know, as did everyone involved in this exchange, that we have a long history with Delta/Northwest. Three of our four tickets were purchased with 75,000 frequent flyer miles. Astonishing.

We killed six hours with the kids in the airport, and then went on to a rude agent at the gate who refused to help us, then boarded a plane with rude staff that snapped at my son and groaned and rolled their eyes while going about their duties. I wonder if the new Monopoly Delta can last this way, or if they will be forced to change. We’ll see, I guess.

Published Saturday, November 06, 2010 11:52 PM by merrillaldrich

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Adam Machanic said:

This is why I always try to fly JetBlue. They're not always perfect, and they've certainly had a few well-publicized gaffs, but 99% of the time they do a great job and I feel like most of the people that work for the company really do care... Not my experience with most other airlines.

November 7, 2010 10:10 AM
 

jchang said:

I fly United, and when I call the dedicated 1K tel, I get an experienced agent who knows their system well, and can make almost any arrangement. However, I also get stuck booking travel for my parents, who don't bother communicating dates precisely. A couple of months ago, I had to change the travel date for a ticket (up by 1 day), which can not be done online. I thought perhaps I would call the regular customer service tel since my mother was not 1K. The agent was probably offshore, and spoke decent English, but between the poor line quality, and occassional missed words, we had a difficult time communicating. Also, she did not seem very familar with the United booking system. I have friends who know the airline system, and seeing them check all possibilities, the strategy is complicated. Anyways, she could only find a standby option for the desired day, even though the online system showed available seats for purchase.

November 7, 2010 12:47 PM
 

merrillaldrich said:

@adam - good tip. Jet Blue has been recommended to me by a number of people (even my wife and my mom :-) and I'll definitely try them. You also make an important point - perfection isn't really required, but treating purple decently, and demonstrating that you are genuinely trying to do the right thing, are very powerful antidotes when there's a problem.

November 7, 2010 4:59 PM

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