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Delta Sends Its 11,000 Agents to Charm School ?

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Delta Airlines Ranked Last Among Major Carriers in Customer Service, So Training Targets Problem-Solving and Personal Skills.

Delta sends 11,000 agents to charm school was an article from the Wall Street Journal, Thursday Feb 3rd by SCOTT MCCARTNEY. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704775604576120080627254652.html?mod=ITP_personaljournal_2
I do not know whether I should laugh or cry about this. I see this way too often where a company is having so many internal problems and lacks good leadership that the frontline service people get hammered by customers. The front line staff develops an attitude or a defense mechanism to cope with the inherent problems. NOBODY likes getting yelled at for things that they can’t control.

The irony here is that most people who go into customer service jobs are afflicted by what I call the “defective customer gene”. It is in our DNA to actually want to service our customers and getting criticized everyday by complete strangers is something we actually enjoy. Not because good customer service agents are masochists but because they view these moments as opportunities to turn something bad into a memorable moment that will increase customer loyalty and satisfaction. Turning around a bad situation is rewarding at many levels.

At Arizona State University’s Center for Services Leadership; they have done a lot of research around ‘Service Recovery’. These studies, and others like them, have shown the importance of being able to effectively turn around customers in the event of a service failure. No service is going to be perfect no matter how hard you try. You strive for the best but plan for the worst. An important part of this research concluded that customers who have experienced a service failure but then are treated appropriately in the recovery for that failure will be much more loyal to your brand than even those who never experienced a problem. The recovery might be simple as an apology with appropriate empathy or it might be appropriate compensation for the problem. Even doctors can drastically reduce medical malpractice claims by admitting to the error and treating the patient and family with appropriate respect and effort to resolve the issue. Service recovery must be timely, it must be sincere and it must be appropriate and proportionate in relation to the customer impact.

It is too easy to blame the customer facing agents for bad customer service. I can guarantee that the 11000 agents at Delta are NOT the cause of their poor customer service ranking. If Delta resolved the root causes like bad scheduling, poor maintenance and bad baggage handling they would not need 11000 agents nor would they need to send them all to charm school. These agents likely got their jobs because they were already charming, their management made them otherwise. They are likely no longer engaged in Delta’s success and lack real empowerment to help make the right changes.

I have seen this at way too many companies where the front line service is surely and unhelpful. These people will look beaten and defeated. They have given up trying to change things they can no longer control. They gave up apologizing for their employer because the problems never get better and so customers view the apologies as insincere. When they lack empowerment and they are no longer engaged they become automatons. Sending them to charm school or replacing them won’t help.

Customer Service is a team sport and everyone from the CEO to lowest paid employee needs to feel a part of the team that creates good customer experience. Southwest is in the same business yet they are profitable and have a loyal customer base. You can tell from the way that the Southwest employees act that they are engaged and as committed as the CEO.

Helping frontline employees to become better ‘actors’ through training them on personal communication styles, negotiating, crisis management and human psychology and the like is a great idea. This is especially true if you want to create certain brand experiences. Ritz Carlton trains their people to act and respond in certain ways consistent with designed brand experience. It would not work if there was not an infrastructure behind them to support that brand experience. In Delta’s case they are wasting money until they have a good handle on the rest of their problems.

Delta, don’t blame the messengers in your company and spend your money where it will make a REAL difference to customers. If I can’t get to my destination, safely, with my luggage at a competitive price on time then no apology from a cheerful agent is going to want to make me fly your airline. Fix your operations then getting 11000 agents to become brand ambassadors will be much easier. Start at the other end of the company, fix that first and you will see much better returns on your investments.
That is my opinion, what is yours?

Doug Morse is Founder and Managing Principal of the Services Transformation and Innovation Group LLC. He is a leading expert on creating brand value through customer centered business strategies with over 30 years of experience in companies like IBM, Oracle, Autodesk and Tyco. www.servtrans.com

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