The Death of Customer Service

September 1, 2010

By Laurie Clarke, Chief Operating Officer at The Tatham Group

Customer service is dead and there is no better killer than the airline industry. No seriously, have you tried flying somewhere lately?

A year ago I had few complaints about my air travel experience. As I look back I realize that my minor grievances were not due to stellar customer service on their part but rather a conformance or training on mine. Picture me as George Clooney in the movie Up In The Air: a single business traveler, no checked luggage, leaving plenty of time before I actually need to be at my destination and always checking in online prior to arriving at the airport. Easy. Pleasant even.

If my current experience as a business traveler, with colleagues, a childcare provider and infant, were written into a movie it would be a modern day National Lampoon’s. So wrong it’s funny. Well at least when it’s not happening to you.

National Lampoon’s United Experience: Stuck in the United States

The trip to Sioux Falls, SD is seamless. Smooth sailing right through ticketing, US customs, security and the gate. Granted we didn’t travel United…

The problems arose when we were trying to return to Toronto. When checking in with United, there was a problem with their system where my name on my passport didn’t match my name on my boarding pass, which didn’t match their system. They knew it was a system error and insisted my husband, baby and mother-in-law continue to the gate where I would join them shortly. Makes sense and we oblige.

After much activity and around departure time I asked what the status was. On hold with ‘someone’ who would help straighten this out but I shouldn’t worry it will all be okay soon. It better be! I’m baby’s food source on this trip.

Camera cuts to the gate. The agent is telling husband, baby and mother-in-law to board the plane. “Don’t worry.  She’ll meet up with you in Chicago. We can’t hold the plane as we are a scheduled airline, etc.” Upon pushing back with the time baby and mom will be separated the agent said they would “take the baby back to ticketing to her mom.  It’s okay for you to go ahead.” What?

Yes, read that again. “I’ll take your baby…”

Husband said no, returned to ticketing where we were told we have to buy new tickets. Then told it was figured out, we wouldn’t have to pay again and were booked on a later flight. After all was done, I asked what went wrong? They said it was a system error that may have led to a $25,000 fine for the airline if they let me through. Something the other airline must have accepted when I entered the US.

And a United customer is lost. However, I can still be resuscitated.

National Lampoon’s Delta Experience: Journey Through the Land of “I don’t care.”

When traveling with an infant the option of checking in online is no longer available. You must wait in line through ticketing in order to pay the $12 taxes and make sure that you are in seats on the CD side of a CRJ-200 airplane. That is the only side of the aircraft that has three oxygen masks in the event of loss of cabin pressure. A ‘fact’ that remains to be confirmed as everyone I asked told me something different.  I spoke with a Bombardier representative who will send me the specifications.

Knowing how long it takes to go through this line, the one at US customs, security and then getting to the gate, I arrive at the airport between 2.5 and 3 hours before my flight time.  And a good thing I did, the ticketing agent couldn’t process the infant ticket. The machine ran out of paper, the people on the phone won’t help me, there’s no electronic record of the ticket, fill in the excuse here…and an hour and forty-five minutes later I’m still waiting. And then the best thing happened. The agent complained that she was now three minutes past her shift, closed out her station and went home. What?

Thankfully a manager was nearby. In five minutes my baby had a ticket and she was handing it to me apologizing for the delay but the other agent ‘didn’t know what she was doing.’ However, we could not get our connecting boarding passes and will have to see the gate agent in Detroit.  We were expedited through customs and security in order to get to our gate on time.  Thank you wonderful, caring personnel!

A rush for naught as our flight left late for Detroit due to weather, which is perfectly understandable.  Leaving the gate and waiting on the tarmac for more than an hour with the update that the Detroit airport is closed and we can’t leave yet was annoying but also understandable. Calling Delta to see if the connecting flights leaving Detroit were also delayed and finding out that they were all ‘on time’ was confusing and frustrating. How can it be that airplanes can’t come in but other flights were all leaving on time IF the airport was closed?

Upon arriving in Detroit the gate agent said that our connecting flight had not left yet and we were given a gate. Our mad dash to the gate resulted in an empty gate. The plane left 20 minutes ago. Please go see customer service.

Customer service. What a misnomer.  We were yelled at to scan our boarding passes at the kiosk. Umm…we don’t have one.  Scan the one you came here with.  Umm…we only have the seat stub.  Huge sigh. Come here. While an unprofessional agent was berating us, there was a young family beside us equally frustrated by their agent. The agent kept telling the woman that ‘they’ would not let her book a flight out. The woman was agitated and kept saying ‘who are they? Aren’t you Delta? Aren’t you they? Say we!’ At one point, she looked to me and said, “they really don’t care, do they?” I could only agree. A gentleman in the line behind us tapped the young woman in front of him and said “Why don’t you tell me your situation, I’ll tell you there is nothing I can do to help you and we can start the process early.”

After much painful negotiation we were sent off to find our hotel for the night. Wait, you say, where is your luggage? Excellent question. The only reason we got our luggage for the night was due to a fabulous baggage agent who pulled on a personal relationship to get us our baggage.

It has now been almost 10 hours from entering the airport in Toronto to standing in the check-in line at a hotel in Detroit.  How long does it take to drive to Detroit? Four maybe five hours. Needless to say we are exhausted and nothing irked me more than to watch Delta employees checking into this nice and expensive hotel knowing we had been sent to a place Trip Advisor reviews unanimously give a thumbs down and the baggage representative strongly recommended we not stay at with an infant. I’m glad my money is being used to treat the staff better than me.

Now on to my return (and customer losing) flight. This brings me back to safety, inconsistency and lack of confidence in Delta representatives.

It all starts by not being able to get seat assignments for the connecting flight. Why? Because the flight Detroit to Toronto is full and the only seats are on the AB side, which we can’t be in remember, and the gate agent in Detroit will have to move some people around.  Annoying but I’m getting used to it.

We are late getting to Detroit and have exactly 7 minutes to get to our connecting flight. We make it, get to the gate agent who is visibly annoyed that we are the last to board and do not have seat assignments. We are given 13A and 13B.  Huh? The flight is full, everyone is boarded and this is a NWA plane not a Delta one. Oh okay, I guess. The flight attendant confirms this and we are seated.

There is a mechanical error and during this time I notice my husbands luggage sitting beside the plane all alone. He asks the flight attendant what’s up? She says, “the plane is over weight and his luggage would not be loaded. But don’t worry, there has been a known mechanical error for hours and between us we will be moving to another plane. Just watch out for your bag.”

Sure enough, we are moved to a Delta plane. Hmm…so now do I have to be on the CD side? I ask the gate agent, who is about as friendly and helpful as Oscar the Grouch, and I’m told to ask the flight attendant who is nowhere to be found. Hey Oscar, is there a phone number for Delta I can call? She literally looks at me and walks away without answering. I find another gate and get a number from that agent. Calling Delta results in the answer that on the CRJ-200 we need to sit on the CD side. The gate agent, shockingly, chooses to yell at us versus helping. Finally another gate agent comes and agrees with us but says that the only way we can move is if passengers agree to switch seats with us.

“What if no one will switch with me?”

“You’ll have to stay where you are.”

“So you are knowingly going to let the plane take off without having an oxygen mask for my child?”


Fortunately a very mature young boy offered to help me out. Kudos to the parent of a 12 year old for raising him to have more consideration, common sense and compassion than the adults that work for Delta.

And a Delta customer is lost.

I only have three options to reach my destination: two down and one to go. My confidence level is low. The sad part is that my travel needs cost twice as much as in the past. However, my value as a customer to the airline seems to have decreased. What?!? The experience is so awful that I joke about driving two days instead of being in airports or airplanes for two days.

Do airlines really need to analyze why they are losing money?  Isn’t it blatantly obvious?

My advice is to create a process from the customer’s perspective and have service agents that actually SERVE the customer. We are not an annoyance. We are not to be dismissed. Our experience and safety is important. WE PAY YOU!

Whew! Now I will exercise my right as a customer, and encourage others to do the same, by spending my money somewhere else. Hopefully this will create a sense of urgency for these airlines to fix their processes (not just their technology) to create positive customer experiences. The revenues will follow.

What do you think? Will the airlines take measures to resuscitate the customer experience in time to stay in business?

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