Let’s Learn From Delta’s [Continuing] Customer Experience Miscues

Let me start this post with a clear disclaimer — I never consider my personal experiences when evaluating customer experience in my research. Every large company periodically delivers subpar experiences, so anecdotes aren’t necessarily indicative of a company’s overall customer experience efforts. 

Having said that, I feel the need to share my experience with Delta Airlines over the last 2 days, because there’s something to learn (or maybe unlearn) — and, to be completely honest, I feel the need to vent.

The summary: It took me 13 hours to get from the airport in Richmond, Virginia to Boston’s Logan Airport. Along the way, Delta found many ways to make the experience miserable.

The painful details:

  • Yesterday, a colleague of mine and I boarded our plane to New York (JFK) in Richmond, Virginia and the plane pulled away from the gate at 6:15 PM — right on time.
  • Minutes after pulling away from the gate, the pilot said that we were on a ground hold and would need to wait there for a while. No real details. 75 minutes later we were brought back to the terminal and allowed to get off the plane.
  • By the time we got off the plane, there were no more options for us at the airport — either on Delta or on any other airlines. (Note: JetBlue flight #1076 for JFK left ON TIME for JFK while we were sitting on the tarmac)
  • The agent at the counter in Richmond was completely unhelpful. All she said was that we were now booked on a flight out of JFK for the following day. She was completely unwilling to explore any alternatives — even those that I suggested. She didn’t seem to care — even a tiny bit — that our 4 hour trip was now going to span a couple of days.
  • Well, we finally got to the JFK terminal shortly after 10:00 PM. It turns out that our connecting flight left about 9:49 PM (Delta didn’t think we were “important enough” to wait for us to make the connection). Now, on to the Delta customer service agent in JFK.
  • The agent told us we had no options to get home that night (although I have since found out that there was a JetBlue flight #1028 that left later that evening). We were booked on a 10:15 AM flight. Luckily I know about the Delta Shuttle — and was able to push him to book us on the 6:30 AM flight.
  • I asked him which hotel Delta was going to put us at. He then informed us that Delta was not going to provide a hotel because it was not responsible for the problem. He used some technical terms that (in his mind) absolved Delta from all responsibility for our situtation. Then I mentioned that it was, of course, Delta’s fault — the JetBlue flight that left after we pushed from the gate seemed to get to JFK without a problem. His response was precious — “How do you know that?!” (As if I must be either mistaken or lying — neither of which was true). It reminded me of a Seinfeld episode. He was obviously well trained in the techniques of avoiding responsibility.
  • Well, the agent did give us a phone number of a service that helps Delta’s stranded customers find hotels in the area. So we called the number. The guy on the phone gave us the phone number for one hotel. We called the hotel and they had no vacancies. Thanks for the help Delta!
  • Well, we found a hotel in the area (on our own) and actually made it to LaGuardia the next day a bit early. So we tried to get on an earlier flight (6:00 instead of 6:30). You’ll never guess what the agents told us — “that will cost an additional $150.” That’s right, she wanted to charge us more money to get us home a day later! When we told the agent about the terrible experience that we had been through, she did a little research on her system and then said — it looks like your plane from Richmond left on time. The implication: Delta doesn’t need to go out of its way for us because it pushed the plane away from the gate at the scheduled time.
  • We finally “convinced” the agents at the desk to let us on the earlier flight (which was completely empty) without any additional charges.
  • Then, finally, we landed at Logan Airport at 7:00 AM today. 12 hours, 45 minutes later.

The analysis: Delta’s records probably show that we were on 2 flights that left on time — and therefore had a successful trip. Obviously, though, our experience doesn’t match that assessment. Hopefully Delta (and other firms) can learn to avoid the following customer experience miscues that we ran into:

  • Poor communications. I understand that delays happen. But the situation gets much worse when customers are left in the dark. We did not get a lot of accurate information about the status of our flight as we were waiting — raising our anxiety level and making it difficult for us to formulate potential solutions to the problem.
  • No accountability. Along the way, every Delta employee seemed to be trained in mechanisms for denying responsibility. The tone of our interactions may have been different if Delta trained its empoyees to recognize that stranding customers at an airport is ALWAYS its problem.  
  • No empathy. Along the entire ordeal, we did not run into a single Delta employee who said “I’m sorry” or even acknowledged our inconvenience. Maybe Delta can just teach agents to start interactions with stranded customers like this: “I know this is really inconvenient, let me see what we can do…”
  • No advocacy. All of the agents that we met were just trying to get rid of us. Not one of them asked what we wanted to do — and they certainly didn’t go out of their way to explore alternatives. A good lesson to learn: the most important time for helping customers is when they are in need. These moments of truth can build or break loyalty. In this case, Delta clearly achieved the latter.

The bottom line: You need to look at interactions from the standpoint of your customers (note to Delta and other airlines: “on-time departure” is not a good customer experience metric). It can provide a dramatically different view!

Epilogue: I sent Delta’s customer service group a link to this blog in their complaint form. But rather than reading it, they sent me an email that said:

“…We appreciate the e-mail you sent. However, please send us your experience in a text form or letter.” 

Looks like Delta doesn’t really care what happened to me — but it is finding every possible way to avoid taking responsibility.

Epilogue #2: I finally got a response from a representative who seemed to have glanced at the feedback that I had to cut and paste into an email. So the airline decided that I qualified for a $75 credit which it promissed to send via another email. But 2 weeks later — there’s still no credit. The ineptitude of Delta’s customer experience efforts is truly comical. Where’s Ashton Kutcher? I must be getting Punk’D.

About Bruce Temkin
I am a customer experience transformist, helping large organizations improve business results by changing how they deal with customers. As part of this focus, I examine strategy, marketing, interaction design, customer service, and leadership practices. I am also a fanatical student of business, so this blog provides an outlet for sharing insights from my ongoing educational journey. Simply put, I am passionate about spotting emerging best practices and helping companies master them. And, as many people know, I love to speak about these topics in almost any forum. My “title” is Managing Partner of the Temkin Group, a customer experience research and consulting firm that helps organizations become more customer-centric. Our goal is simple: accelerate the path to delighting customers. I am also the co-founder and chair of the Customer Experience Professionals Association (CXPA.org), a non-profit organization dedicated to the success of CX professionals.

3 Responses to Let’s Learn From Delta’s [Continuing] Customer Experience Miscues

  1. Shawna says:

    I was writing a large message when my lap top went off and I lost all my data, I’m not writing all that again, in short Delat lost my luggage, ruined my 29th wedding anniversary and first cruise and cost me more money by changing my flight I paid for in advanced and didn’t feel they had to let a paying customer know. They have done nothing to find my luggage that I want back. I went through my cruise with out close to wear, couldn’t participate in ship activities. I will never fly Delta again I am cancelling my miles card and will tell anyone who will listen not to fly them. There excuse for not paying for the hotel in San Juan after they did a way with there flight forcing me to stay a day in San Juan to catch another flight was they just went through bankruptcy. They are now joined with Alaska and some other company. I guess they had to get rid of their debts, screw alot of customers and fire some higher paying employees.

  2. Bruce,

    One word – “Ouch.” I am sure that ‘someone’ at Delta does care, they just don’t happen to be any of the many, many you had the pleasure of interacting with on that trip.

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