Amazing customer service from-gasp! An airline

Airline customer service“Keep Climbing.”

That is the slogan for Delta Airlines latest advertising campaign, which highlights its promise for a “reinvigorated customer experience.” You may often see this television commercial and others like it, paying little attention to the message and the value proposition. Often with only the reassurance that the planes were pointed upward and not downward.

More than any advertising, more than an impactful website, more than those tasty biscotti cookies served on the plane, this really was a reinvigorated customer experience.

In such a saturated industry, it is difficult for any airline to differentiate the customer experience. The planes themselves are virtually identical. The food, if it exists, is universally awful. Airport security is conducted by an entity over which the airlines have virtually no control. And virtually everyone who flies has a personal horror story. Is it really possible to redefine the customer experience?

It was the personal experience of Barbara’s with a single employee that emblazoned Delta’s value proposition in her mind forever. Their promise came to life in a real, tangible way. More than any advertising, more than an impactful website, more than those tasty biscotti cookies served on the plane, this really was a reinvigorated customer experience.

Allow us to set the scene. To her horror, she inadvertently dropped her passport in a mailbox at Charles de Gaulle airport  (it was bundled with all her VAT refund envelopes). The instant the mail left her hand and dropped to the bottom of the mailbox, she realised her error. Two airport employees told her it was impossible to open the mailbox on a Sunday since postal workers, who do not work on Sundays, have sole authority to open the box. She was told she must wait until Monday, go to the U.S. Embassy in Paris, and request an emergency passport before she would be able to fly. In desperation, she approached the Delta ticket counter and told them she had a BIG problem.

One gentleman behind the counter, Mr. Karim Sayoud, took her problem as though it were his own. He calmed her in her increasing panic, explained what he could do and immediately called the U.S. Homeland Security Customs and Border Control representative station at the airport.

Mr. James Wilkinson from U.S. Homeland Security came to interrogate her. All she had was her passport number. she had nothing else. No copy of the passport, no social security card, and the address on her driver’s license did not match her passport. After providing enough correct answers to convince him that she was in fact who she said she was, he agreed to let her travel, subject to the French authorities that retain final approval.

Karim Sayoud left his position at the Delta ticket counter, escorted her to Delta check-in, and he convinced his colleagues to accept her baggage (without the certainty that she would be on the flight) and issue a boarding pass. He then escorted her through French passport control and security, encouraging the authorities to let her through, and ultimately to the Delta gate agents. It was there that she was finally able to breathe a sigh of relief.

Sayoud didn’t stop there. After she was successfully on the flight, he took it upon himself to make certain that her passport was retrieved from the mailbox the following day and returned to her in New York. He actually taped a handwritten note on the mailbox so the postal worker would see it and return the passport to Delta once it was retrieved. He phoned and emailed her multiple times each day updating her on the status. Lo and behold, the passport arrived at her address by FedEx–a true customer-service miracle made entirely possible by one dedicated employee.

So what essential lessons can a brand learn from this?

  • Any and every interaction with your brand is meaningful, especially for a service brand. The service at the 6-foot level is just as important as the ad campaign at the 30,000-foot level, because a customer truly experiences a brand on the ground.
  • Employees should be given permission to use their judgment. Hire, train, and empower them to represent the brand in the best possible way. Mr. Sayoud could have easily shrugged me off and told me to come back Monday, but instead he became invested in my problem and my Delta brand experience.
  • Employees should be rewarded for demonstrating the desired behavior. Barbara personally reached out to Delta in thanks for the service she was provided and hopes it impacts Mr. Sayoud’s life as it has hers.

This one experience has reinforced Barbara’s decision to fly Delta at every possible occasion, because she knows she is in good hands. May the Delta brand continue to keep climbing.

Barbara Apple Sullivan, is CEO and a managing partner of Sullivan, a multidisciplinary brand-engagement firm based in New York City.

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