We all routinely deal with inconveniences and annoyances—so routinely that most aren’t even worth griping about half the time. We’re just that used to poor service, and mediocre treatment, and apathetic reps, and inflexible business policies, and Press 1* to Return to the Main Menu.
The bar for impressive customer care is so low, in fact, it’s practically on the ground, lying like a stick in the dirt—right alongside our humanity. All companies need to do, to deliver good service, is do the minimum. All they need to do is step over that stick, as my friend Joey Coleman says.
At least I think that’s what Joey says. I should probably look it up. But I refuse to, because I refuse to pay Delta Airlines another nickel of my hard-earned money. The money that I earn, in part, flying from place to place almost every week, on airplanes exactly like the very one I’m on, which right now is carrying me from Atlanta to Omaha.
Delta wants my $9.95 for Internet on this flight so I can check Joey’s quote. Technically, I’d be paying GoGo Inflight the $9.95 for accessing its wi-fi.
I don’t know the partnership arrangements between airlines and wi-fi providers. But I have to believe Delta gets a cut of that.
And I will not have any part in that. No, I will not have it. Not after today.
This post isn’t about the $9.95 wi-fi charge. It’s not even really about Delta Airlines. There are many good people who work there. On any other day, Delta is one of my top carriers.
So if it’s not about Delta, what is this about?
It’s about a few bigger things. Among them:
- In this age of accountability and transparency and a video-crew-in-every-pocket, why is customer disrespect still standard operating procedure at our largest institutions?
- Why are “customer-first” marketing messages so often just that: hollow marketing messages?
- Why are so many big-brand social media accounts still woefully ineffective? Why are they still not integrated with the rest of business operations? And why are the poor souls monitoring them often not empowered to act?
- And finally (and this is the biggest, hairiest, thorniest, and most complex question): At what point does technology intended (in part) to improve the customer experience actually instead undermine it?
The stuff that happened to me today could have—with minor modifications of the facts—happened anywhere. On almost any airline, or telecom, or big banking institution.
This is less of an indictment of a specific situation with a specific airline than it is a call for all of us leaders to rethink some bigger issues that I have time or space to rethink here. But they’re issues that sorely need our addressing.
The wi-fi charge is just one of many, many things that occurred today—the last drop in a day packed full of bad moments, strung together like some unholy beads.
Full-on rage is an uncharacteristic state for me. I get as irritated as anyone with having to wind their way through a maze of a customer service phone tree. I might bitch about that irritation later. My friend nods. He gets it.
“I know, right?! Me, too. Last week. When I was trying to call about the surcharge on my insurance bill.”
We all get it. Bad service is a spectator sport, and we grouse about the more chafing plays. My friend Jay Baer says that. Or something like it. (Not looking that up, either.)
But then… eh. what are you going to do? (I know, right?)
Companies often seem to have policies that feel like they’re locked in combat with their customers. We customers reassure each other in the foxhole. Then we climb back out and move on.
Today I flew from Boston to Atlanta, to connect to Omaha; both Delta flights. The Boston flight was delayed for some never-explained reason, which made the connection in Atlanta tight. Three of us from Boston were trying to make that connection—we had maybe 20 minutes to hoof it between terminals in Hartsfield-Jackson, which is Delta’s hub.
So we hustled. We arrived with 4 minutes to spare after some robust cardio though the terminals. The plane was still parked there at the gate (yay!) But the door was closed (boo!).
BREAKING: As we are standing there, begging to be let on the plane, my phone buzzes with an alert from Delta. My flight—the one in front of me, the one I can’t get on—is delayed by 10 minutes.
The Delta gate agent initially refused to open to the door. But then she relented and opened the door to let on only one of us. (Not me.) The passenger allowed on apparently had a niece already on the aircraft.
So what about the remaining two of us? Delta had reassigned our seats.
Let’s pause here for a slow-motion replay so we can zoom in on the detail.
We were on a Delta flight from Boston.
That flight was late leaving.
Delta knew we had tight connections. The flight attendant asked those passengers without tight connections in Atlanta to please allow those of us who needed to hustle to deplane and get on our way.
In Atlanta, the three of us didn’t arrive at the new gate after the flight had left or even after it was supposed to leave; we arrived with four minutes still on the clock. And then the flight was delayed, anyway.
At which point they re-opened the door to let only one of us on.
Delta’s gate agent said they couldn’t remove the stand-by passengers now sitting in our seats, eating our peanuts, because they’d just put them there 10 minutes prior.
I agree: removing the passengers would not have been a good move (shoutout to United and Dr. Ken!)
But WHY WERE THEY LET ON IN THE FIRST PLACE, since they were on stand-by and Delta knew we were in the terminal, running there?
So they knew we were incoming from a delayed flight.
Is it unreasonable to think they wouldn’t hold the seats for us?
Is it unreasonable to expect that someone from Atlanta Gate T6 wouldn’t call Gate B18 to alert them we’d momentarily be there?
Is it unreasonable to think they wouldn’t give away my seat at the precise moment that I’d been racing across the Atlanta airport, schlepping my stuff after I had landed on their own aircraft?
Am I being a snowflake, people? Seriously. Go ahead and tell me I am. Because if you think I am, you’d probably be interested in knowing what happened next: The Gate agent shrugged. Customer service is over there, just before Gate 20, she said. And she gestured vaguely to the left.
Customer service said they’d be happy to rebook me.
I tried to reframe the situation mentally. Great! Fine. I’ll get some lunch. Stuff happens. Breathe. My event tonight isn’t until 6 PM. Plenty of time.
This is how travel goes sometimes. Eh… what are you gonna do? I know, right?
It was 11:56 AM.
The next flight with availability? 7 PM.
My event is at 6 PM. I’d land as it’s ending.
Well, there’s a flight at roughly 4 PM, the customer service person said. But that’s full. You can try stand-by.
Any other flights? Nope.
Any other flights with other airlines? Nope.
Any other airports that are close? Not really.
Because, remember: Omaha. Lovely people. But no one seems to visit them.
The customer service person looks at me blankly: What do you want to do?
What do I want to do? Why didn’t you do something?
This whole situation was avoidable. I glance over at the other Boston passenger—the woman who was also not let on the flight. She is now in the foxhole, too. I can see she’s visibly frustrated.
I turn back to the gate agent and ask for an explanation—something, anything to help explain why Delta gave away my seat when I was huffing and puffing and sweating my way through the terminals, because maybe that will make me feel better.
Maybe it’ll help me to understand why I’m still standing here in Atlanta, my backpack strapped to my back, my overnight case at my feet, instead of climbing to cruising altitude toward Omaha, like I should be right now.
They don’t hold aircraft, she said. Unless there are like 15 people traveling together.
But you didn’t have to hold it. You just had to not give away my seat.
You weren’t at the gate 10 minutes before departure. So they gave away your seat. But Delta knew I was racing there, because I was on your other aircraft—the one that was inexplicably delayed.
My delay wasn’t because I was down at the Chili’s soaking up the last bits of my cheesy fries. You had let me off of one of your late airplanes, and I was racing toward the second.
YOU. KNEW. THIS, just like you know right now that there is no other flight that will get me out of Atlanta when I need to be gone from here.
More blank stares. So what do you want to do?
I took the 4 PM standby. And then I took to Twitter.
Here’s why I felt a need to complain on Twitter: I wanted to be heard in the way that the one or two people I was actually talking to, face to face here in Atlanta, didn’t seem to hear me at all.
I wasn’t yet furious. But I was so completely unsatisfied, that I actually craved explanation—hoping there’d be a shred of explanation that would make sense of this. A reason or policy that would click into place like a missing piece of the puzzle, and then oh, gotcha. Understood. Thank you. Sorry for the trouble.
I tweeted at the @delta account a few times. I told them they were the worst (okay, maybe I was already furious). Then I asked for assistance. They were active, but they didn’t respond. I felt ignored, so I tweeted them
— Ann Handley (@MarketingProfs) May 4, 2017
And then, 15 minutes later:
— Ann Handley (@MarketingProfs) May 4, 2017
After an hour since my original tweet, someone from the @delta account got back to me. Do you still need help? They asked.
Yes. I said.
Thus ensued a series of direct messages. I explained the situation. They told me a lot of things I already knew, and then, when at last I had spelled out the situation in the longest Twitter Direct Message I hope I ever write, they said they would forward the information over to their “Airport Leadership Team.” (Whatever that is… I imagined a squad of people dressed in blazers, sporting shiny airline wings on their breast pocket.)
And then @delta on Twitter offered me a $200 Delta voucher or 15,000 bonus miles. Whichever I preferred.
I persisted. I don’t care about the voucher or miles, I said. I want to understand why my seat was given away, when you knew I was coming. They offered their sincerest apologies. They told me seats are given away 15 minutes before departure. Again, they said they’d forward my DM to the Airport Leadership Team.
I said: Might I actually speak to this so-called Leadership Team directly?
Via direct message, from @delta to me: “Ann, please provide me with your location currently and I will request a Red Coat supervisor to come and speak with you.” (So they do wear blazers!)
I was sitting at Gate B1 by now, the standby gate I hoped would be mine. I was parked sitting in a molded black seat. The plastic felt aggressively hard. That was at 1:41 pm.
1:48 pm: “I have submitted your request and a supervisor should be there momentarily.”
2:14 pm: No Red Coat had materialized. I wanted to get a snack but didn’t want to miss them. I messaged back: “Still waiting btw.”
2:21 pm: Delta: “Our records show the request has been submitted. A supervisor should be with you shortly.”
3:06 pm: No one showed.
My name was called for standby. (YES!) I was the last one on the plane. My tiny suitcase was taken from me—there was no overhead bin space. Whatever. I folded myself into my inside seat in the rear of the aircraft.
I hate the back of the plane. I hate the inside seat. But I was grateful to be there, even if I felt held tight and uncomfortable, like an animal in a trap.
Before I left the terminal, I direct messaged @delta one more time. I told them no one ever showed. I sat there waiting for 90 minutes. Not a red coat in sight.
A direct message came back: “I’m very sorry to hear you haven’t received assistance at the airport, Ann. I understand this is a disappointment. Please advise if we can be of any assistance via this channel.” The message was signed: “*FN”
I wrote this post yesterday, while folded into my rear seat. I couldn’t extend my arms in that seat, so I typed like a tiny-armed T-Rex on a laptop wedged between my body and the reclined seat in front of me.
Since then, I found a partial answer to the question of why my seat was given away: An algorithm makes these seating decisions about who sits where, not actual people.
But I say “partial answer” because that doesn’t really explain the whole thing, does it?
If the algorithm is astute enough to know I didn’t show, isn’t it also astute enough to know I just landed on an incoming aircraft? And anyway, isn’t there a human being who actually calls the names on the stand-by list? I have a hard time fathoming that the machines are that much in control. And that human beings have no recourse.
Also since then, I’ve played over and over in my head the questions I raised at the outset, including that question inspired by the (literally heartless) algorithm. And I’ve turned them over, too, to ask myself if the opposite could also be true:
- In this age of accountability and transparency and a video-crew-in-every-pocket, can customer respect become standard operating procedure at our largest institutions?
- Can “customer-first” marketing messages not be just hollow marketing messages?
- What can we do to inspire big-brand social media accounts be more effective? Can we integrate them with the rest of business operations? What if we empowered the souls monitoring them?
- And finally: Can we use technology intended (in part) to improve the customer experience to actually, you know, improve it?
One final thought:
I re-read and replayed the conversations (both on Twitter and in person) I had yesterday with Delta. What jumped out at me was the language. Not “we need to fix this” but “what do you want to do?” Not “we need to send someone to you” but “you didn’t receive what you needed.”
Language matters. The words we choose reflect our mindset (often more than we realize).
And what’s more: words shape behavior. The words we choose to use instead might actually incite change. But, of course, we have to choose them. We have to use them.
And we have to empower people to use them, which is really the root of the issue.
Today I am flying back to Boston from Omaha, via Detroit. I have 45 minutes to make the connection. I was in touch with the @delta Twitter account, which assures me the 45 minutes is considered a “legal connection time.”
I smile a little at that—what’s an “illegal” connection time?
Just now, I made the connection. Thank you, Delta.