Don’t Leave Your Customers Stranded

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I rarely post about bad customer experiences I myself have endured. On a professional level, I note what’s going on – and of course, what the company should be doing differently! – but on a personal level, I understand these kinds of things happen and typically don’t let them get to me.

But I’m calling out a recent trip with Delta, because it hinges on lessons we should all learn.

First, let me say that I typically enjoy traveling with Delta and have had mostly excellent experiences. And many of the initial problems in this instance were beyond Delta’s control.

Until they weren’t.

What became apparent was a lack of proactive experience design and that’s what I want to discuss here.

[Note: This experience took place in early December, weeks before the staffing shortages caused by the omicron variant would lead to the widespread flight cancellations across the country that persist today. Since COVID-related shortages – in both products and personnel – are ongoing, the lessons here are even more important.]

Here’s what happened, and my take on it:

Experience

Analysis

I was in Detroit on business and scheduled to fly home to Minneapolis on a Friday night. Up to eight inches of snow were expected in Minneapolis, so I wasn’t too surprised when my flight was canceled proactively. I rescheduled for the next morning and headed for a hotel. This was a well-designed experience. Delta saw it was highly unlikely the flight would be able to proceed as scheduled because of the storm, so they canceled it, saving passengers potential hassle by proactively rescheduling it.
On Saturday morning, I arrived at the airport at 6:30, and stopped in at the Delta Club to prepare for my 8:30 flight. I got to the gate at 8:00, ready to board, but nothing happened. At 8:30, we were told that our scheduled plane had equipment problems, so they were bringing in another plane from Marquette and it would be there about 10:30. I went back to the club. Equipment problems happen unexpectedly. I get that. I would have preferred earlier notice, but better a delayed flight than an unsafe plane!
At 10:15, I returned to the gate. We all stood around until 10:30, when we were told there was bad weather in Marquette. Our “replacement” plane hadn’t left yet, so our departure was rescheduled for a few hours later. Back to the club. Bad weather happens, too. But Delta certainly knew well before 10:30 that the plane that was still on the ground in Marquette at that time wouldn’t be leaving from Detroit at that time. Passengers should have been notified proactively.  Again, this wasn’t terrible, but the frustration the late notice caused was 100% avoidable and foreshadowed the issues that arose thereafter.
Arrived at the gate in plenty of time to board – again – and was delighted to see the plane there! And passengers disembarking! But once they were all off, the captain made an announcement that went something like this: “Folks, I have good news and bad news. Actually, it’s all just bad news. We’ve been waiting at our gate for hours now and have exceeded our allowable hours. The FAA won’t let us fly any more. We’re going to try to find another crew, but I’m afraid we won’t be able to fly you.” After passengers began to grumble and complain, he said, “We’re based in Minneapolis, and we wish we could fly, too. But it’s out of our hands.” More entirely avoidable frustration for customers. With the clocking predictably ticking on the crew’s remaining allowable hours, another crew should have been arranged earlier or the flight canceled.
As I headed back to the club, the ambient Christmas Muzak was interrupted for an announcement of the cancellation of my thrice-delayed second flight. After 30 minutes with the gate crew, I was able to book another flight. Why wasn’t this process automatic, as it usually is? To my surprise, I had to initiate it. (Does anyone just give up and move to the city they’re stranded in after a flight cancellation? Don’t we all still need to get where we’re going?)

Don’t worry – I’m not still at the airport. I eventually did get home, albeit 24 hours after my original arrival time. But the point here isn’t, “I had a frustrating travel mishap and sure wish the customer experience was better.”

As I said, most of the initial issues were out of Delta’s hands. It was in service recovery where Delta showed a lack of foresight and planning. And you just don’t expect to see that in a world-class customer experience, which (of course, with exceptions) the company typically provides.

We see these same issues –  lack of planning and proactive notification – all over the place, from product delivery to software implementation. So let’s use this as a teaching moment and consider these takeaways:

  1. Proactive communication reduces effort and improves outcomes.

    While I didn’t love that my initial flight was canceled, it was managed in a way that allowed me to easily react and make new plans.

  2. Proactive communication creates an expectation of continued proactive communication.

    While the first day’s efforts succeeded, the second day’s missed the mark. By a lot. Maybe the crew coming in from Marquette were holding out hope for as long as they could that they’d be able to fly out, so they delayed the cancellation until the last possible moment. We see the same issue in many journeys.

    For example, in manufacturing, customer service teams often avoid communicating that a product will be late. This procrastination doesn’t come from a bad place. They hope to find another source for the product and don’t want to disappoint a customer – or risk a canceled order. But when they fail to find a timely replacement, customers don’ have time to make alternate arrangements. The lesson? Transparency beats all.

  1. Provide transparency to staff.

    While the status of the delayed flight and its potentially problematic landing time might be too nuanced to communicate through the app, Delta could have at least informed their gate crew, who could then temper passenger expectations. But the crew seemed just as surprised and frustrated as the passengers to learn of the delays and cancellations.

  2. Train employees when to use humor – and when not to.

    We all love the examples of Southwest Airlines’ use of humor, and Delta has lightened things up with amusing videos and gestures that show the staff really cares. But a canceled flight isn’t the time for a joke.

  3. Lack of consistency in the experience increases frustration.

    Delta likely has a rigorous process for working through large-scale weather issues, involving extensive planning and specific rules on when to cancel flights. But it’s clear this same rigor doesn’t exist for situations requiring real-time reactions. I’m sure someone at Delta can explain why the first flight was handled better than the rest. But as a customer, I really don’t care. I expect Delta’s to be at their best every time, in every situation.

Because of ongoing staffing shortages and supply chain disruptions, experiences like have become more common and less surprising…though no less frustrating. That’s all the more reason to ramp up your ability to respond proactively. Your customers will remember how you handled this era.

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