Case Study: Delta Airlines – When Digital Customer Experience Goes Bad


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There’s little debate as to the critical nature of getting digital customer experience right. There isn’t a customer experience professional, IT leader or shareholder-focused senior executive that doesn’t get it. We all know it’s dramatically changing the ways companies need to deliver on customer experience.

But getting digital experience right is hard. Even the best-intentioned organizations blow it. Unless it’s tied to a broader, multi-channel customer experience strategy, organizations will continue to deliver different and often inconsistent experiences across different channels.

And when you’re dealing with tens of thousands of customers a day, when things go wrong they go really wrong. To which, Delta Airlines. Their flights were grounded by a global system outage earlier this week that brought the airline to its knees. No flights, no boarding passes, no communications.

I’m writing this article from Seat 1D on Delta 1151 from San Francisco to Minneapolis; a flight I was originally booked on a week or two ago, but had to repurchase after Delta “helpfully” cancelled my tickets and gave my seats away without notifying me until I got to the airport.

How I got here is a story of digital customer experience gone bad.

One travelers story: Mine.

As some of you may have read, Delta was the latest airline shut down due to a power outage which caused their computers to malfunction. Passengers stranded, schedules blown up, customers horribly unhappy. That’s where their digital customer experience strategy kicked in. And where it failed.

For me – and I’m guessing thousands of others – the news on Monday was a brief concern. But the ability to get boarding passes and confirmations the day before the flight assuaged any worries. Then I woke up to a text saying my connecting flight had been canceled.

No worries; as a seasoned traveler, you deal with this all the time. I booked a new flight to Green Bay, and assumed I was ready to go. Not so fast. Because Delta’s computers kicked in and made a series of changes, made on a series of false assumptions. Their systems assumed that:

  • I didn’t care when I got to Green Bay
  • I didn’t need to know about travel changes before I got to the airport
  • I wouldn’t mind an 18-hour trip with 3 layovers

The result? Without notice or consultation, Delta’s systems worked hard against these assumptions, cancelling all my tickets, giving away my seats and re-routing me for arrival nearly 20 hours after my originally ticketed time.

Once I figured out what they’d done, I repurchased all new tickets and arranged new ground transport. At the end of the day, I was only 3 hours later than expected. Why? Because I am a lot smarter than Delta’s digital strategy.

When a proactive, preemptive digital CX strategy seriously ticks customers off.

Delta’s approach was based on a tried-and-true digital CX strategy: address customer issues before they occur, by leveraging data, systems and processes to proactively initiate a solution to a potential problem. In CX consulting shorthand? Enabling proactive, preemptive digital experiences.

Some of the promise in this type of strategy includes taking proactive action to address issues before they even occur. You can introduce new services or provide guidance on existing offerings. By doing so, organizations can preemptively solve customer problems before or during an interaction, helping customers enjoy immediate increases in perceived value.

In theory, this should work great. Think Amazon crediting you for a movie’s “substandard playback quality” before you’re even had a chance to notice it. Or – as Southwest did when I was stranded due to their computer glitch a couple weeks ago – quickly sending me an email promising a $200 voucher on my next flight to compensate for the hassle.

But the successful implementation of this strategy means understanding what your customers actually want or need. You see, from a customer’s perspective the quality of any experience is based on the degree to which it meets their expectations.

A famously customer-focused organization, Amazon almost certainly leverages its understanding of customers to know when to offer a movie credit. Southwest screwed up, but gave me a $200 apology within a day.

Sorry, Not Sorry.

We all get it when things go wrong. We know that computers, and people don’t always work the way we’d like them too. But we all expect the organizations who wish to serve us treat their customers with respect. Which means following through on your promises, and being sincere.

Adding insult to injury, it appears that Delta is big on apologies – but not action. To date, I’ve received two apology emails “We’re Sorry!” and a third, below, which hilariously apologized a third time, then asked me if I’d recommend them. Uh, no.


Which is a critical lesson for any company trying to make it right with a service recovery strategy. When you screw up with a customer, apologies only work if you mean them.

See Southwest, above – one apology email and a $200 voucher. Unlike Delta, they said they were sorry – and proved it. The reality is that customers are savvy enough to see through yet another organizational fauxpology. Goodness knows, we’ve seen enough from politicians and other executives to recognize them.

No matter how “smart” a digital strategy is, if the organization isn’t aligned on what it takes to deliver against it, they’re destined to fail. So, yes. Delta’s in the digital customer experience doghouse, and deserves to remain so until they get their act together. But you can, and should, learn from their mistakes.

Republished with author's permission from original post.


  1. In late July, my flight to Kansas City from Philadelphia via Southwest was cancelled due to massive national problems within the airline’s software system. Delta was able to get me there, only a half hour later than Southwest would have. Had I booked on Delta two weeks later, I’d have experienced the same fate – flight cancellation due to massive national problems with the airline’s software system.

  2. August 20th Update: I received an email from Delta today, 10 days after my flight. It said I was “Granted an eCert” which looks a lot like a $200 voucher. The reimbursement for the extra tickets I had to buy? No word yet. As a customer, no one likes to wait. As consultants, we advise companies to move fast when it comes to addressing customer issues.


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