When Things Go Wrong

UPDATE: Very funny video on the same lines here. Thanks, Mark.

Please forgive this slightly off-topic post, but I think it has important lessons for any organisation with customers, and is therefore worthy of consideration.

I came back from a week in Silicon Valley on Saturday morning, flying with Delta via Atlanta to Munich. A 5 hour delay at San Francisco caused me to miss my connection and forced a 24 delay in Atlanta – not to mention another 3 hours delay on that leg too.

Now, shit happens in any organisation. In this case, the first delay was caused by mechanical problems which I’m sure everyone did their best to resolve. The flight crew were charming, helpful and apologetic and the passengers, from what I saw, were resigned and understanding.

We were also told that a massive operation was underway as soon as our plane did take off (and therefore they knew what time we would arrive) to rebook us all on new flights.

When I landed in Atlanta there were a whole bunch of Delta ground crew there to meet us, who had been mobilised in the last 5 hours. They smilingly apologised, gave us new tickets and for those who had spend the night, arranged a hotel and vouchers to get a decent meal. Oops – sorry – that is what SHOULD have happened at an absolute minimum if Delta were serious about wanting my business in the future. Let alone wanted to turn me into any kind of brand advocate.

What actually happened was that we were directed to another terminal in a peremptory way – the one actually the furthest we could possibly go and thus the most inconvenient for us, the already inconvenienced passengers. There, we had to queue for at least an hour as a clearly understaffed bunch of agents worked to rebook us.

Clearly, absolutely no attempt had been made to pre-empt this situation by trying to rebook in advance, so each passenger had to wait at least 15 minutes while the agents searched for new routes and flights.

This was interspersed by completely uncalled-for and regular lectures by militant and aggressive ground staff about how “we were all facing the same problem” and we must be patient. This was in spite of the absence of complaints from passengers, who by that time had already been travelling for 12 hours and more, not counting travel to the airport in San Francisco. Some of these people were also elderly and infirm.

When we finally got sorted out, we were given hotel vouchers and left to make our own way to the courtesy shuttle. This meant retracing our steps to the original terminal we landed at. And we were also given a voucher for a meal of $7 – whoopdeedoop. Out of interest, I tried to find anything on the menu at the hotel for that price and failed miserably.

And the next day, another militant ground crew operative started making snide jokes about the new delay we were facing and stroppily demanded 5 times over the tannoy that we mustn’t hold boarding up by forgetting to keep our passports open at the picture page. WE mustn’t hold up baording, please note.

Delta’s service is (as Tom Peter’s says) ho-f***ing-hum at best, a kind of Greyhound bus of the skies, making BA or Virgin look truly luxurious, even in the back of the plane. Even little things like the veggie meal that I’d ordered proved to be beyond their ability to organise.

But when they squander an opportunity like this, you wonder if they wouldn’t be better shutting down. ANY customer interaction is an opportunity to impress and turn that customer into an advocate. And this applies as much – if not more – to a complaint resolution process. Take note, our friends, the mobile operators.

But it’s even more important that this, as if you fail to satisfy a customer, they become the opposite of an advocate. In this case, some 30,000 people will read quite what a shitty experience flying Delta is.

The final lesson is that a company like this must pull together – everyone must shine when dealing with customers as it only takes one part of an organisation to fail, to bring down the whole damn thing. The flight crew were badly let down by the ground crew, management and workers alike, undoing all the excellent and committed work that had happened earlier to keep the passengers understanding and forgiving.

I’ve going the The Valley again in August and guess which airline won’t even be on the short list? And the sad thing is that it wouldn’t have been hard to get me to at least consider them again.

[tags] Delta airlines, tom peters, customer service, community [/tags]

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