May IBAW Newsletter

02 May, 2023

When Things Go South, What Will Your Customer Service Look Like?

Written by Robert J. Gross

It was a Thursday evening and our excitement was mounting. My wife and I were going on a business trip to Thailand and Vietnam with the WEDC. We had received our schedules, looked at all the materials, knew where we needed to go and what we needed to do, and had everything packed. I went online and verified our documentation, checked in for our seats, and went to bed knowing that adventure awaited the next morning.

The first part of our journey was to be on Friday and Saturday, flying from Milwaukee to Minneapolis (MSP), from Minneapolis to Seoul (ICN), and then from Seoul to Bangkok (BKK). Sunday was for cultural tours and activities and Monday/Tuesday was for customer interactions. Then Wednesday it was on to Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh City.

The first segment was completely uneventful and actually went as well as it could. The plane boarded, the pilot explained what was happening, and in no time at all, we were in Minneapolis. We looked at the airport map and then realized that we had to walk for what seemed like 5 miles from one end to the other, but an electric car pulled up and asked us if we wanted a ride. Seems they have these carts available for anyone, not just the elderly and disabled. Cost is the tip that you feel your driver earned for taking you from gate to gate.

Great customer service and life was good.

We boarded early for the flight from MSP to ICN. There was a small amount of confusion after they closed the doors. A family of five with young children had boarded and each one of them was in a middle seat in a different row. Our flight attendant asked if anyone would trade seats and my wife stepped forward. We had both taken aisle seats next to each other, but by her taking the middle seat next to me, at least the dad and the youngest child got to sit together. After everything had calmed down, the flight attendant came over to my wife and complimented her quietly for what she had done. As a result, she was awarded 5,000 bonus miles for her good deed. That was unexpected and welcome.

So far, great customer service and a great customer experience.

Then the pilot came on the overhead. There was this instrument, or gauge thingy, that needed to be fixed. It could wait because it was not a critical safety component, but the winds were in our favor and it would only take 20 minutes or so. We would be in Seoul on time with room to spare. There were a couple of other announcements throughout the early afternoon, and then at the 3 hour point, they gave us the option to get off the plane and stretch our legs. Things we not going so well on the repair but we were still going to make our flights and our connections. Then my phone went off with a text from Service Recovery Support and 2 $15 meal vouchers. Bev and I went over to the diner at our gate and had milkshakes.

Ok, a bit of concern but things seemed under control.

At 4 hours, they reboarded us. At 6.5 hours, they told us the flight crew had expired and they were calling up a new crew. At 7 hours, they told us the pilots had expired and there were no more pilots to get so, please leave the plane. The flight has been canceled.

After exiting the plane, we got in line with the other 250+ passengers at the 6 gates at the end of the concourse we were on. I walked over to an additional gate and asked about getting help. The response was “We are told to tell you that the computer will take care of rebooking you and that you should just be patient.” Ok, back to being in line at our gate. At the 3-hour point of standing in line, having lines consolidated, and then closed, we were about 20 back in the last remaining line when the final attendant announced that their day was over, have a nice day, closed the line, and left. One option was to call the reservations line.

Customer service has just melted down.

Ding – my phone popped up with a message from Service Recovery Support. It was a hotel, Lyft, and a meal vouchers for the night at the downtown Hyatt. So off we went to get a Lyft and head downtown for the night. We asked for our luggage and they said no, you cannot have it as there was no one to get it. We could wait if we wanted but it would be at least 10 hours.

Complimentary hotel & meal vouchers

We’re sorry for the inconvenience. We’d like to help by providing complimentary hotel accommodations and meal vouchers for everyone in your reservation. Transport vouchers are available with this offer. After requesting a hotel, please check the confirmation page.

Snow had started falling and the Uber and Lyft drivers were all canceling and heading home. There were families with kids all over crying and stranded. We had not realized it but over half the flights into and out of MSP were being canceled as a major winter snowstorm coated the area. Luckily, we were able to secure a Lyft driver and made it to the hotel after a couple of attempts.

The phone was answered by the computer. “Hello Robert, if your flight is not within the next 72 hours, please go online and reschedule your trip. If it is less, stay on the line and you will be handled in the order received. Estimated wait time is approximately 3.5 hours…”. Just another Friday evening in Minneapolis.

Customer service and support has completely vanished.

I’ll spare you the rest of the gory details. We were rebooked to Seattle. Then that flight was canceled. I spent over 8 hours on hold listening to their upbeat jingle on 3 phone calls over the next day. We had to go back to the airport where we were told that the weather was not a reason for vouchers and had to prove that the cancellations were not weather related, even though they already knew this. Our hotel tried to throw us out after the first night since the voucher was only for one night, even though I secured it with a credit card. We never got our luggage, however, they did show up when we finally arrived in Bangkok, Tuesday morning at 12:30am. And the best part, we flew out on Sunday afternoon to Seoul on the exact same plane that could not fly on Friday.

The good needs is that we eventually arrived in Bangkok although we missed our cultural day along with the first day of business meetings.

At Delta, we take pride in delivering an exceptional experience, providing reliable and thoughtful service at every moment of your travel journey. On your recent trip with us, we didn’t live up to that commitment and we want you to know we’re sorry. Your satisfaction means everything; it’s why we do what we do. We hope you’ll give us an opportunity to make things right.

I’ve given this a lot of thought over the last month. What started out as a pleasant journey into the unknown, turned quickly into a nightmare. I get it, the hardware sometimes breaks and the weather sometimes is not to your liking. That however, is when you earn your stripes. Everyone can do a great job when things are going their way. But what about when they are not? That is a differentiator and in my opinion, a big one.

What should we do?

For those of you who know me, you know that I am a pilot myself. One thing in aviation is that every problem that you may experience, has been experienced before. As such, there is a checklist for everything. The engine stops in mid-flight. There is a checklist. The weather is deteriorating. There is a checklist.

Let’s see here. If the flight is canceled and the plane is deboarded, has that ever happened before? Where is the checklist? With the checklist then, is training. And with training, we can build customer satisfaction, or at least customer retention, through those best practices. That then builds culture.

Yes, perhaps your employee may be having a bad day. What about the customer, stuck in a strange city, with nothing but clothes on their back during a major weather event? You build a culture that allows your people to help those, no matter how long it takes to work through the system. You don’t accuse the customer of making this stuff up and you do everything you can to make the disaster just a bit more palatable. Use your checklist.

Above all, be honest! Do not lie just to get that person to move on to someone else. Yes, I was lied to on multiple occasions here so that they could process as many as possible. How stupid do you think the customer has to be to not realize that he/she has been duped?

So, build a plan for the time when things will melt down. It has happened here before at Gross Automation and it will happen again. What did we learn, what could we have done better, and most importantly, how will we handle it in the future? Write it down and be ready. Train for it.

Then, when things do go south, what will your customer service look like?