Friday, March 23, 2007

The good, the bad, and the ugly of customer service

Today: The bad UGLY!

In the past couple of weeks I have experienced the absolute best customer service I've ever received and the absolute most horrible. Each example teaches us something value about how to treat and not treat our patrons. I'm starting this discussion today with the bad so that I can end on a positive note. Plus, it'll be cathartic because I'm still in shock about how poorly I was treated by the company in question! Without further ado, here's the story from my viewpoint:

Last week, I traveled to San Diego for a conference without incident, that is, until the return trip. The first leg of the trip, a red-eye Delta flight to Atlanta went off without a hitch. We were not so lucky on the second leg. We boarded the flight from Atlanta to Richmond promptly and on time Sunday morning. After being seated, the pilot informed us that the maintenance crew was investigating a mechanical problem and he would update us shortly. After about 15 minutes, the pilot declared that there was a fuel leak that was outside of established tolerances and that we'd have to de-board. He assured us that Delta would try to find us another plane and that we could even retain our same seat assignments. However, no sooner did we all step off the plane then we heard that our flight had been canceled and that we were to proceed to the nearest service desk for assistance. This is where all the fun began. We formed a seemingly-endless line at the Delta service counter. Behind that counter was not a friendly service staff member, but a telephone. My understanding is that we were to use the phone to call for help, though some passengers in line used their cell phones to do so only to be greeted with a recording that stated their call would be answered in about 8 hours. My perception is that the line never actually moved forward, but that people simply left the line to find an alternative means of transportation, which gave the illusion of progress. In addition, there were no available one-way rental cars and we heard through the grapevine that the next available flight would be Tuesday. We were fortunate in that we were able to get a ride to Richmond with two generous strangers ahead of us in line who happened to be able to obtain a one-way car rental through their special membership. Were this not the case, I would have been stranded in Atlanta with no help from Delta whatsoever. The icing on this cake of mishaps was that my fiancé spent 3 hours on the phone with Delta and Continental (a Delta partner, apparently) trying to obtain a refund, only to be bounced back and forth between the two companies, each denying responsibility. (My ticket, by the way, stated, "Delta flight.")

To be fair, we were not the only passengers with travel trouble last weekend, and we were lucky, relatively speaking. There were some passengers in line who had been trying to get home since the previous Friday! I'm sure Delta had trouble locating a plane with all of its tie-ups in the Northeast. However, these circumstances do not excuse the terrible lapses in customer service that resulted after the flight was canceled.

In order to understand what went wrong here from a marketing perspective, it's useful to analyze this experience using a customer service model referred to as RATER. RATER stands for:

  • Reliability – Doing it right each and every time
  • Assurance – Making the customer believe you can do it right each and every time
  • Tangibles – What the physical evidence suggests about the quality of your service
  • Empathy – Caring about customers
  • Responsiveness – Taking the initiative to help customers and anticipate needs
(Note: If these sound familiar, the LibQual survey attempts to measure service quality in each of these areas).

In reviewing each piece of the model, it's clear to me that Delta failed in each and every aspect. Individual customer will weight the importance of these components differently, but for me, I was most shocked by Delta's lack of empathy. Most of us were exhausted, under time pressures, and without any means or assistance to get to our destinations and no one cared! In my next post, I will go into more detail about customer service principles as they apply to this case and how Delta got it wrong. I'll also offer suggestions for how the company could have done a better job, which I hope will provide a useful example for evaluating our own services. I'll conclude with my experiences with a company that got it 100% right and the inspirations I took away from the experience.


Sybil said...

Jill, your story, while painful to read, is most sad in that you & your fellow passengers weren't the only ones subject to such horrible service. I also experienced the frustration of trying to fly somewhere last week. (Compared with your fiance, I only had to wait 2-1/2 hours "on hold" with USAir, despite being told it was a 30 minute wait, trying to rebook my flight.) A friend of mine was challenged trying to return home from Chicago on United just yesterday, and I just read another passenger horror story about American Airlines. Customer service issues need to be addressed by the entire airline industry. In the meantime, us air travelers will continue lowering our service expectations as well as our tolerance threshholds.

Jill said...

Hi, Sybil! I am so sorry to hear about your troubles too. I'm understanding about these things to a point, but even a small show of response or action would have gone a long way. I'm going to try to disect this experience further in terms of tolerance, expectations, attribution, etc., so please feel free to weigh in on subsequent posts. It's getting to the point where I'm trying to avoid flying as much as possible because of things like this. (Oh, and by the way, neither my mother nor I will fly US Air anymore. They are CONSISTENTLY horrible).

Scott said...

Jill, I had a very similar experience with Delta a few years ago. Our 8:00 PM flight was delayed further and further into the night, but despite repeated inquiries and the fact that the monitor said our flight was canceled, Delta assured us the flight would leave. At 3:00 AM, we were told the flight was in fact canceled. The desk attendant handed us each a piece of photocopy of a hand-written telephone number (nothing else). This number was constantly busy and the desk attendants consistently said there were no other flights. They eventually sent us from JFK airport to LaGuardia (I think just to get rid of us since the so-called tickets they gave us, we discovered at LaGuardia, were not in fact tickets) and then back to JFK. We were told for the 24 hours we waited that there were no flights to our destination. The most ridiculous part of the story is that my mother-in-law very easily found a one-way ticket for us and get this, it was on Delta! Then, when we tried to get reimbursed for this ticket, Delta refused. Now I cringe every time I even hear the word Delta and obviously, will never fly them again.

Jill said...

Scott - that is truly terrible! The most shocking part, in both are cases, is the company's apparent willingness to deceive it's own customers to keep people out of their hair. It's really shameful. I'll be writing more on this! Thanks for sharing your story but I'm sorry for your ordeal!