Service Lessons: Delta Airlines Fail and Save

The financial services industry would do well to learn from the customer service shortcomings and successes of other industries. I especially am paying close attention to how other industries serve their clients as I embark on building my newest fintech company.

My personal experience with Delta Airlines in the first week of March of this year is particularly educational of what failure looks like and how to potentially recover from it. In the first week of March I was taking the red-eye from San Francisco to Hartford Connecticut, with a roughly two-hour layover in Detroit. Our plane left more than an hour late, with the stated reason of high winds delaying the flight. Many passengers on the flight had connecting flights and the Detroit airport is large so catching the connection was a real concern.

By the time we landed and got to the gate, we had about 15 minutes to catch our connection. The flight attendant told me and others on my same next flight that the gate we had to get to was 60 gates away and it would be tough to make it. Upon leaving the plane, I asked the gate agent to please call ahead to have the plane wait for us as we were on our way. The agent said flatly “No, we can’t do that”. Given the lack of time, I literally sprinted to the gate and ignored her rather rude reply.

As I approached the gate, I was relieved to see on a nearby clock that it was still prior to departure time so I thought I made the flight. My relief was short lived. Standing in front of the closed door to the gate was a young woman with a stroller and infant child. There was no gate agent present. Mind you, it was still a full five minutes before departure time. The airport was nearly deserted as it was daybreak. I saw the plane, still connected to the ramp. The young mother said she had been there for five minutes prior and the gate was closed and she missed the flight too, needlessly.

I looked for the nearest gate agent I could find, ran up to her and interrupted her dealing with the one passenger she was handling and asked her to call to open the door as there were people waiting, and more literally running on the way from my flight. The agent did not lift her head and show basic human courtesy, but rather simply said, “no, we cannot its too late”. I repeated this process with two more nearby agents, receiving a nearly identical, rude and dismissive reply. I did get one agent to make a call to someone, and the call took all of 5 seconds, with a reply of “they will not let us”. Each time I asked exactly why and imploring them to open the door as now there were more than six people waiting at the door and reiterating that they closed the gate doors early. Three times in a row, I received no specific answers why, no eye contact and utter rudeness. Now get this, the plane was still connected to the gateway! I then watched it pull away a few minutes later, so I went to find an agent to book me on the next available flight.

Now I do not claim to be very knowledgeable in the inner workings of the airline industry, but I have flown quite a bit. I have been on a flight that actually pulled back from the gateway, while my co-workers were watching us at the gate because of delays and could not get to the gate on time by literally minutes. Me and others on the flight made a stink to go back, and they did roll back the 25 feet or so and open the doors. So Deltas excuse that the plane can’t open the doors back up is sheer nonsense.

I found a new gate agent, whose name is JR, to book the next available flight. While he was working on it, I shared the debacle I just encountered. I also shared that I would never fly Delta again, and if I am so lucky to build a large company, none of my employees would ever fly Delta on corporate business either. He looked me in the eye, was clearly empathetic and shared several reasons why a flight might not be able to open the doors back up. He did not have an answer why none of his three peers offered the same reasons.

Over the next two hours while I waited for my new connection, JR, who was ironically working my flight came up to me on two different occasions to apologize on behalf of the airline and thank me for my feedback. In fact, just before the doors closed, he boarded the flight to specifically come to me, shake my hand and apologize again. JR understands the meaning of customer service. It appears that many Delta employees do not.

So, what can we all learn from this? First, look people in the eye! Second, if you are in the position to give bad news to a customer, give then a specific, real answer. Third, work at making up for it, like JR did. In this day and age of social media, bad customer service can spread at a remarkable pace. Finally, train your people consistently so the exact same, positive message is conveyed each and every time.

Will I fly Delta again? I am not sure but thanks to JR, it went from a “never again” to a “maybe”