Northwest Airlines Does It Another (and Another and Another) Time


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Every now and then I get a customer service story that is so egregiously bad that it teaches the clear lesson that there is a line that can be crossed with any customer that just shouldn’t and it isn’t even a matter of corporate culture necessarily, but of an employee who is so awful that they should be called out. So, based on a story that my good friend and colleague, Gerhard Friedrich of RWD Technologies, told me today, I’m reproducing the story exactly as he wrote it – just so you can see what an audaciously disgusting employee can do and how the single individual can stain the reputation of a company that really can’t afford the stain.

I’m also using this story to lead off my “Bad Customer Service Story Week” because Gerhard is a semi-rabid Red Sox fan (which means he is better than most of them) and this is my backhanded way of congratulating the Red Sox on their World Series victory.

So, Gerhard, take it away….

“A month ago, I took a flight from FL to Minneapolis on Northwest. On the Detroit to Minneapolis leg, as we started reaching cruising altitude, I, sitting in the seat next to the seat next to the emergency exit door, heard a high pitched frequency that sounded like an alarm. After 5 minutes of the ear-piercing noise, with no one explaining its purpose publicly, I called the flight attendant. She arrives and yells “door!” “Door?” “Yes, there is something in the door seal that we have been reporting for three months but since the mechanics don’t fly, they can’t hear it and it doesn’t get fixed.” She explained.

To help me, she found a set of earplugs for me and apologized. After an hour of torture, since the earplugs didn’t help (and apparently it only was heard in the seat I was in – a weird anomaly – but it was what it was -I got off the plane finally. When we landed, I ran over to the “customer service” desk at the airport to report the incident and opened up the issue of what they could do for me to make it up to me for this horrible experience. I was handed a brochure and told I should write it down and send it in because they “couldn’t do anything here.” They further told me, “Don’t bother with the phone number, you’ll wait forever. Use the email link instead.”

Since I had a long ride to my hotel and a splitting headache, I waited on their customer care phone line for 20 minutes and got a human being – or at least I thought so. I recounted my story to this “person” and asked for two things 1. Notification when the problem was fixed so that no other future Northwest Airlines fellow customers would have to go through the same torture I did (since apparently the three months of reporting it by the employees didn’t get it fixed) and that I get a first class upgrade for my flight home to compensate me for my discomfort.

“I can’t give you either of them. I don’t have the authority to give you an upgrade and you won’t be notified about the repair because its none of your business how we run our operations.”

Suddenly, I made it my business because she made it personal. Her name was Andrea and I made the point that I wanted to be connected to Andrea’s supervisor since she obviously was not given the authority to do anything on the one hand, and was pretty poorly trained on the other.

“I AM the supervisor and no one above me in authority is available for a matter like this. This is our operations and we will NOT notify you about something that’s not your business.” She then decided to let me know that this call was going nowhere and that it had gone on too long and she was going to terminate it.

She then hung up.

Since Andrea had told me in no uncertain terms there was no further escalation through her, I went the email route and submitted this story with a promised response time of 48 hours.

This was a month ago. No response yet.

I’m stuck on Northwest when I have to go to Minneapolis but there is NO way that I will EVER fly Northwest again to ANY other city.”

Stories like this are something. This is one story where the behavior of the customer service representative crossed the line so far that it damaged the experience of the customer with the entire company – an airline he had flown loyally for YEARS. Northwest can be forgiven for not giving Gerhard the first class upgrade – though they should have been smart enough to do something – especially since they sold him a seat that was a KNOWN serious problem – but they can’t be forgiven for refusing to let him know that the problem was resolved – because its “none of his business. ” In fact, as a customer of Northwest, it was absolutely his business – since they knowingly sold him a seat that had problems – and because he has been a committed flyer of Northwest. This wasn’t an “operational” issue – it was customer issue and Andrea screwed up royally – as did Northwest.

Northwest went south.

Paul Greenberg
The 56 Group, LLC
Paul Greenberg, the president of the 56 Group, LLC, is the author of the best-selling CRM at the Speed of Light: Essential Customer Strategies for the 21st Century, 3rd edition. Greenberg is co-chairman of Rutgers University's CRM Research Center and executive vice president of the CRM Association. His blog PGreenblog won both of the only two awards ever given to CRM blogs.


  1. What struck me most was the remark:
    “apparently it only was heard in the seat I was in – a weird anomaly – but it was what it was”
    If it was so much torture, why did you not ask for a seat change? If the stewardess was able to hear it and she also thought it was horrible, she might have just granted you a different seat.
    That would have taken care of your horrifying experience.

    This still doesn’t make up for the NW service, but it would have take the pain and frustration out of your experience.

  2. Paul – as someone stuck flying Northworst 90% of the time (which just happens to be the percentage of flights at MSP controlled by NWA), I deeply empathise. But I’d also like to provide a bit of background on your experience. NWA has had THE worst labor relations of any airline. They have beaten their people to a pulp. The entire staff (or almost) is bitter, dispirited, resentful, you name it. And their only outlet is to take it out on passengers. That in no way excuses what you went through. But if your complaint had been escalated, the person at the higher level wouldn’t have given a rip, and might even have “punished” the customer servive supervisor for not “dealing with you.”

    Totally sad situation. Which is why I fly Continetal whenever I can – even to the point of flying to Newark and waiting hours for a transatlantic flight rather than stomaching Northwest for that length of time.

    Have a great Thanksgiving!


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