A Return to Friendly Skies

February 18th, 2011 by Andrea Bennett

Delta looks to shake its surly reputation by sending its staff to charm school.

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

If you’ve traveled by air over the past few years, odds are you’ve encountered a surly airline employee or three. Nearly every frequent flier has a tale to tell about a nasty gate agent (I know I do). To give them credit, the job isn’t easy, and explaining cancellations and delays to trapped travelers is a no-win situation. But it seems that some fliers have become so vocal that at least one airline is making some sweeping changes.

According to a Wall Street Journal article, Delta Air Lines ranked highest last year in the number of customer complaints filed with the Department of Transportation, and came second-to-last in on-time arrivals and baggage handling (through November). After its merger with Northwest Airlines and a summer of canceled flights – Delta had the highest rate among major carriers last year – its reputation was battered and its customers were left fuming.

“Nobody here aspires to being what we were last summer,” Delta Executive Vice President Glen Hauenstein said. So in hopes of setting customer perception – and customer service – right, the airline is sending its 11,000 ticket counter, gate and baggage agents and their supervisors to customer-service training.

That’s right – charm school. Of the complaints Delta received from customers, the recurring themes weren’t so much about delays and cancellations as they were about how agents treated them during flight snafus. The day-long training for agents is meant to address such complaints as “no one cared or apologized” when something went wrong, and the common irritant that elite frequent fliers (a small percentage of passengers who contribute more than a quarter of its revenue) weren’t treated like they were special. It’s the first training devoted to customer service that Delta has done in 10 years.

The news was met with mixed reviews – mostly positive, some skeptical – among the most vocal frequent fliers. On FlyerTalk, one of the most active frequent flier communities online, “PaperQueen” said treatment over the phone varied by destination, and that she could tell “in under 30 seconds” where a Delta employee was based. In Minnesota, she said, “…the attitude is upbeat, problems are fixed, and you feel sincerely appreciated. If, however, you end up with [Salt Lake City] or Atlanta, your concerns are shrugged off with a ‘too bad, so sad’ approach…”

Matthew Bennett (aka “Mr. Upgrade”), who runs the first class flyer website Upgrd, partly attributed customer service problems to merging airlines with different corporate cultures. “I personally have had much better experiences with United agents than Continental agents in 2010,” he wrote. “The bottom line, is that just like Northwest and Delta employees come from very different customer service traditions, so do United and Continental employees. Some re-training would be very helpful to ensure a smooth transition as the merger continues to unfold.”

It probably doesn’t come as a surprise that foreign airlines, particularly in Asia and the Middle East, rank higher in surveys such as the Skytrax “Official World Airline Star Rating” program than U.S. airlines. (To be fair, service traditions in general are often far different in these regions, and foreign airlines may have more leeway to discriminate among the employees they hire in the first place.) Some airlines, such as Qantas, already have dedicated customer-service training facilities. The Australian airline started training 18,000 cabin crew, pilots, call center employees and corporate employees in 2009.

As for Delta, the training is not about offering waivers or bending the rules to accommodate complaints. “Travelers still may not like the rules, but they may get the bad news with a smile,” WSJ’s Scott McCartney wrote. Agents are instructed to greet customers memorably, be empathetic, listen to customers, and acknowledge their emotions with comments like, “I know you’ve had a hard time getting here.”

Which all sounds great, but at least a few online commenters have already asked the obvious: Is one day of training enough to teach an employee a career lifetime of empathy?

As FlyerTalk member “U2Fan” said, “I hate to sound cynical, but I have always believed you have to want to give great service[…]It is not something you can teach in a day. I hope it works though.”

What’s your take? Are you a skeptic or an optimist about Delta’s charm school training? Is one day enough to unlearn bad habits?