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We all routinely deal with inconveniences and annoyances—so routinely that most aren’t even worth griping about half the time. We’re just that used to poor service, and mediocre treatment, and apathetic reps, and inflexible business policies, and Press 1* to Return to the Main Menu.

The bar for impressive customer care is so low, in fact, it’s practically on the ground, lying like a stick in the dirt—right alongside our humanity. All companies need to do, to deliver good service, is do the minimum. All they need to do is step over that stick, as my friend Joey Coleman says.

At least I think that’s what Joey says. I should probably look it up. But I refuse to, because I refuse to pay Delta Airlines another nickel of my hard-earned money. The money that I earn, in part, flying from place to place almost every week, on airplanes exactly like the very one I’m on, which right now is carrying me from Atlanta to Omaha.

Delta wants my $9.95 for Internet on this flight so I can check Joey’s quote. Technically, I’d be paying GoGo Inflight the $9.95 for accessing its wi-fi.

I don’t know the partnership arrangements between airlines and wi-fi providers. But I have to believe Delta gets a cut of that.

And I will not have any part in that. No, I will not have it. Not after today.

This post isn’t about the $9.95 wi-fi charge. It’s not even really about Delta Airlines. There are many good people who work there. On any other day, Delta is one of my top carriers.

So if it’s not about Delta, what is this about?

It’s about a few bigger things. Among them:

  • In this age of accountability and transparency and a video-crew-in-every-pocket, why is customer disrespect still standard operating procedure at our largest institutions?
  • Why are “customer-first” marketing messages so often just that: hollow marketing messages?
  • Why are so many big-brand social media accounts still woefully ineffective? Why are they still not integrated with the rest of business operations? And why are the poor souls monitoring them often not empowered to act?
  • And finally (and this is the biggest, hairiest, thorniest, and most complex question): At what point does technology intended (in part) to improve the customer experience actually instead undermine it?

The stuff that happened to me today could have—with minor modifications of the facts—happened anywhere. On almost any airline, or telecom, or big banking institution.

This is less of an indictment of a specific situation with a specific airline than it is a call for all of us leaders to rethink some bigger issues that I have time or space to rethink here. But they’re issues that sorely need our addressing.

II

The wi-fi charge is just one of many, many things that occurred today—the last drop in a day packed full of bad moments, strung together like some unholy beads.

Full-on rage is an uncharacteristic state for me. I get as irritated as anyone with having to wind their way through a maze of a customer service phone tree. I might bitch about that irritation later. My friend nods. He gets it.

“I know, right?! Me, too. Last week. When I was trying to call about the surcharge on my insurance bill.”

We all get it. Bad service is a spectator sport, and we grouse about the more chafing plays. My friend Jay Baer says that. Or something like it. (Not looking that up, either.)

But then… eh. what are you going to do? (I know, right?)

Companies often seem to have policies that feel like they’re locked in combat with their customers. We customers reassure each other in the foxhole. Then we climb back out and move on.

III

Today I flew from Boston to Atlanta, to connect to Omaha; both Delta flights. The Boston flight was delayed for some never-explained reason, which made the connection in Atlanta tight. Three of us from Boston were trying to make that connection—we had maybe 20 minutes to hoof it between terminals in Hartsfield-Jackson, which is Delta’s hub.

So we hustled. We arrived with 4 minutes to spare after some robust cardio though the terminals. The plane was still parked there at the gate (yay!) But the door was closed (boo!).

BREAKING: As we are standing there, begging to be let on the plane, my phone buzzes with an alert from Delta. My flight—the one in front of me, the one I can’t get on—is delayed by 10 minutes.

The Delta gate agent initially refused to open to the door. But then she relented and opened the door to let on only one of us. (Not me.) The passenger allowed on apparently had a niece already on the aircraft.

So what about the remaining two of us? Delta had reassigned our seats.

Let’s pause here for a slow-motion replay so we can zoom in on the detail.

We were on a Delta flight from Boston.

That flight was late leaving.

Delta knew we had tight connections. The flight attendant asked those passengers without tight connections in Atlanta to please allow those of us who needed to hustle to deplane and get on our way.

In Atlanta, the three of us didn’t arrive at the new gate after the flight had left or even after it was supposed to leave; we arrived with four minutes still on the clock. And then the flight was delayed, anyway.

At which point they re-opened the door to let only one of us on.

Delta’s gate agent said they couldn’t remove the stand-by passengers now sitting in our seats, eating our peanuts, because they’d just put them there 10 minutes prior.

I agree: removing the passengers would not have been a good move (shoutout to United and Dr. Ken!)

But WHY WERE THEY LET ON IN THE FIRST PLACE, since they were on stand-by and Delta knew we were in the terminal, running there?

So they knew we were incoming from a delayed flight.

Is it unreasonable to think they wouldn’t hold the seats for us?

Is it unreasonable to expect that someone from Atlanta Gate T6 wouldn’t call Gate B18 to alert them we’d momentarily be there?

Is it unreasonable to think they wouldn’t give away my seat at the precise moment that I’d been racing across the Atlanta airport, schlepping my stuff after I had landed on their own aircraft?

Am I being a snowflake, people? Seriously. Go ahead and tell me I am. Because if you think I am, you’d probably be interested in knowing what happened next: The Gate agent shrugged. Customer service is over there, just before Gate 20, she said. And she gestured vaguely to the left.

Customer service said they’d be happy to rebook me.

I tried to reframe the situation mentally. Great! Fine. I’ll get some lunch. Stuff happens. Breathe. My event tonight isn’t until 6 PM. Plenty of time.

This is how travel goes sometimes. Eh… what are you gonna do? I know, right?

It was 11:56 AM.

The next flight with availability? 7 PM.

My event is at 6 PM. I’d land as it’s ending.

Well, there’s a flight at roughly 4 PM, the customer service person said. But that’s full. You can try stand-by.

Any other flights? Nope.

Any other flights with other airlines? Nope.

Any other airports that are close? Not really.

Because, remember: Omaha. Lovely people. But no one seems to visit them.

The customer service person looks at me blankly: What do you want to do?

What do I want to do? Why didn’t you do something?

This whole situation was avoidable. I glance over at the other Boston passenger—the woman who was also not let on the flight. She is now in the foxhole, too. I can see she’s visibly frustrated.

I turn back to the gate agent and ask for an explanation—something, anything to help explain why Delta gave away my seat when I was huffing and puffing and sweating my way through the terminals, because maybe that will make me feel better.

Maybe it’ll help me to understand why I’m still standing here in Atlanta, my backpack strapped to my back, my overnight case at my feet, instead of climbing to cruising altitude toward Omaha, like I should be right now.

They don’t hold aircraft, she said. Unless there are like 15 people traveling together.
But you didn’t have to hold it. You just had to not give away my seat.

You weren’t at the gate 10 minutes before departure. So they gave away your seat. But Delta knew I was racing there, because I was on your other aircraft—the one that was inexplicably delayed.

My delay wasn’t because I was down at the Chili’s soaking up the last bits of my cheesy fries. You had let me off of one of your late airplanes, and I was racing toward the second.

YOU. KNEW. THIS, just like you know right now that there is no other flight that will get me out of Atlanta when I need to be gone from here.

More blank stares. So what do you want to do?

I took the 4 PM standby. And then I took to Twitter.

IV

Here’s why I felt a need to complain on Twitter: I wanted to be heard in the way that the one or two people I was actually talking to, face to face here in Atlanta, didn’t seem to hear me at all.

I wasn’t yet furious. But I was so completely unsatisfied, that I actually craved explanation—hoping there’d be a shred of explanation that would make sense of this. A reason or policy that would click into place like a missing piece of the puzzle, and then oh, gotcha. Understood. Thank you. Sorry for the trouble.

I tweeted at the @delta account a few times. I told them they were the worst (okay, maybe I was already furious). Then I asked for assistance. They were active, but they didn’t respond. I felt ignored, so I tweeted them

And then, 15 minutes later:

After an hour since my original tweet, someone from the @delta account got back to me. Do you still need help? They asked.

Yes. I said.

Thus ensued a series of direct messages. I explained the situation. They told me a lot of things I already knew, and then, when at last I had spelled out the situation in the longest Twitter Direct Message I hope I ever write, they said they would forward the information over to their “Airport Leadership Team.” (Whatever that is… I imagined a squad of people dressed in blazers, sporting shiny airline wings on their breast pocket.)

And then @delta on Twitter offered me a $200 Delta voucher or 15,000 bonus miles. Whichever I preferred.

I persisted. I don’t care about the voucher or miles, I said. I want to understand why my seat was given away, when you knew I was coming. They offered their sincerest apologies. They told me seats are given away 15 minutes before departure. Again, they said they’d forward my DM to the Airport Leadership Team.

I said: Might I actually speak to this so-called Leadership Team directly?

Via direct message, from @delta to me: “Ann, please provide me with your location currently and I will request a Red Coat supervisor to come and speak with you.” (So they do wear blazers!)

I was sitting at Gate B1 by now, the standby gate I hoped would be mine. I was parked sitting in a molded black seat. The plastic felt aggressively hard. That was at 1:41 pm.

1:48 pm: “I have submitted your request and a supervisor should be there momentarily.”

2:14 pm: No Red Coat had materialized. I wanted to get a snack but didn’t want to miss them. I messaged back: “Still waiting btw.”

2:21 pm: Delta: “Our records show the request has been submitted. A supervisor should be with you shortly.”

3:06 pm: No one showed.

My name was called for standby. (YES!) I was the last one on the plane. My tiny suitcase was taken from me—there was no overhead bin space. Whatever. I folded myself into my inside seat in the rear of the aircraft.

I hate the back of the plane. I hate the inside seat. But I was grateful to be there, even if I felt held tight and uncomfortable, like an animal in a trap.

Before I left the terminal, I direct messaged @delta one more time. I told them no one ever showed. I sat there waiting for 90 minutes. Not a red coat in sight.

A direct message came back: “I’m very sorry to hear you haven’t received assistance at the airport, Ann. I understand this is a disappointment. Please advise if we can be of any assistance via this channel.” The message was signed: “*FN”

V

I wrote this post yesterday, while folded into my rear seat. I couldn’t extend my arms in that seat, so I typed like a tiny-armed T-Rex on a laptop wedged between my body and the reclined seat in front of me.

Since then, I found a partial answer to the question of why my seat was given away: An algorithm makes these seating decisions about who sits where, not actual people.

But I say “partial answer” because that doesn’t really explain the whole thing, does it?

If the algorithm is astute enough to know I didn’t show, isn’t it also astute enough to know I just landed on an incoming aircraft? And anyway, isn’t there a human being who actually calls the names on the stand-by list? I have a hard time fathoming that the machines are that much in control. And that human beings have no recourse.

Also since then, I’ve played over and over in my head the questions I raised at the outset, including that question inspired by the (literally heartless) algorithm. And I’ve turned them over, too, to ask myself if the opposite could also be true:

  • In this age of accountability and transparency and a video-crew-in-every-pocket, can customer respect become standard operating procedure at our largest institutions?
  • Can “customer-first” marketing messages not be just hollow marketing messages?
  • What can we do to inspire big-brand social media accounts be more effective? Can we integrate them with the rest of business operations? What if we empowered the souls monitoring them?
  • And finally: Can we use technology intended (in part) to improve the customer experience to actually, you know, improve it?

VI

One final thought:

I re-read and replayed the conversations (both on Twitter and in person) I had yesterday with Delta. What jumped out at me was the language. Not “we need to fix this” but “what do you want to do?” Not “we need to send someone to you” but “you didn’t receive what you needed.

Language matters. The words we choose reflect our mindset (often more than we realize).

And what’s more: words shape behavior. The words we choose to use instead might actually incite change. But, of course, we have to choose them. We have to use them.

And we have to empower people to use them, which is really the root of the issue.

Today I am flying back to Boston from Omaha, via Detroit. I have 45 minutes to make the connection. I was in touch with the @delta Twitter account, which assures me the 45 minutes is considered a “legal connection time.”

I smile a little at that—what’s an “illegal” connection time?

Just now, I made the connection. Thank you, Delta.


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56 Responses to This Isn’t a Post About Delta Airlines

  1. Douglas Pals says:

    Ann,

    I know right!

    Sorry…I could not help it.

    Thanks for so clearly saying what needed to be said…and heard.

    Now, we just need people to remember they are people serving other people and that using a hint of love, kindness or compassion might just make the whole world better.

    God bless you and your travels.

    DP

  2. We all suffer from this same problem (I say, after huffing it yesterday rom one terminal to another because a departure plane in San Jose was delayed for 30 minutes leaving me less than 20 minutes for my connecting flight at DFW where I had to change terminals and didn’t have time to go pee, which was really stressful).

    “Customer experience” whether at the airport, or on the damn phone with almost any business, or trying to get a company to send me a return label after asking 4 times (true) are all forms of psychological torture. Customer experience means just one thing: make us feel good. Even when apologizing, or whatever those words are meant to convey, just make the customer feel good. That’s it. Simple.

    Oh, and I hope your talk in Omaha went well.

    • Ann Handley says:

      Thanks for weighing in, Deborah. I’d say that making customers feel heard is more important than making customers feel good. My biggest frustration was not feeling like I was heard, even if no one could really make me feel better.

  3. Tammy Allen says:

    Hi Ann,
    I used to work for American Airlines many years ago. One the reasons you were treated so poorly is the rigidity of what an employee is allowed to do. I was once given the job to return grievance calls. My main goal was not to help them it was to let them know they had been heard.

    On one call the man was crying saying there had been a death in the family causing him to miss a trip. He had the death certificate and he needed his ticket to be refunded. He had followed all the rules and regulations to support his grievance. I was told to say, “I’m so sorry, I can only imagine how this must feel. Unfortunately, there is nothing I can do and there is no one else that you can contact.”

    I was mortified! I wanted to scream give the guy his money back!

    Fortunately I only had to do that for one day.

    But you know corporations are people now and they just received massive tax cuts in their favor. We are in deep right now. I don’t want to make this about politics, but it is about politics. Workplace politics. You’re lucky you weren’t arrested (jk I think).

    Breathe and carry on being the good in the world.

    Tammy Allen

  4. Mark Edwards says:

    I had a nightmare scenario with American Airlines this week, I won’t go into all the details, but I’m legally blind and American violated the act that is supposed to protect the disabled on three of four flights in one day and there’s a good chance one of their employees in St. Louis committed a Class D Felony because of the way she treated me when I tried to record our conversation. And I have it all safely saved.

    Airlines may have the worst, most insensitive customer service of any industry, and that’s saying a lot. Why they don’t take stories like yours to heart, especially knowing your influence level, is beyond me. They just don’t get it. And they know it won’t hurt them, if you have to get from Boston to Omaha or St. Louis to Des Moines, your choices are limited at best.

    One thing that tends to at least make me feel better and honk off the airlines’ Twitter teams is to go into the worst details of your problem on the public timeline. The number of times and intensity of begging they’ll use to get you to move to DM can sometimes be quite entertaining.

    • Ann Handley says:

      First, I’m sorry you had to deal with your situation.

      Second, I thought of keeping it public. But my goal really was just to be heard. Maybe Delta and other huge institutions will listen to this? I hope so.

      Thanks for swinging by here, Mark!

  5. Tom Bentley says:

    Ann, whiskey, neat. Perhaps two. Your problem is that you are too damn reasonable; you should have lit a small fire, or hired a nearby anarchist to shout incomprehensible slogans.

    But so sadly true: the bar has been set so low for some customer service exchanges, and yet there seems to be a spiral to go lower yet. Oh, the humanity!

  6. Fish stink from the head down. Leadership doesn’t care. Not at Felta. Not at most companies. Maybe this article will get the attention of a leqd t who does care. Not because it cost them business. Because it is the right thing to do. Until we return the humanity back to business leadership and until those leaders stop focusing only on quarter end numbers, this will not stop.

    Sad.

    • Ann Handley says:

      I understand the financial pressure that leadership is under. But often that feels like an excuse, not a true rationale.

      Thanks for your support, Phil!

  7. Your story reminds me of my story many years ago. I was heading from Boston to Guatemala City via Texas (I forget which airport). The Boston plane was early morning and we were booked on the very last plane to Guatemala City from Texas. There were about 13 of us, including a family that had a terrible tragedy. Their mother had arrived that Friday from Guatemala for a visit and died in her sleep that same Friday night. Her family in Guatemala did not know. They had shipped her body home and had booked this flight to arrive with it so that they could be there and tell the rest of the family in person.
    Our plane had mechanical problems and was delayed for quite some time. Finally a plane took off with all of us. The pilot wasn’t sure we would make it to the connecting flight, but kept promising us it was possible. Our plane landed 10 minutes after the departure time of that last flight out. They knew we were coming. They knew we would only be 10 minutes late. They knew about the death. We landed in the next gate. There would be no flights out of Guatemala CIty when we landed, so the plane wasn’t turning around that night and heading back. They would not hold the flight… we never hold a flight.

    The put us all up in a hotel and brought us on the first flight out that morning. Except the plane had a cracked window and we had to wait two hours and another crew. I was a half day late for my conference.

  8. Shannan says:

    Thank you for sharing this because I’very also experienced poor customer service. Your words described it so well I could instantly relate.

  9. Shannan Seely says:

    Thank you for sharing this because I’very also experienced poor customer service. Your words described it so well I could instantly relate.

  10. Andy says:

    Reading your piece, I repeatedly wanted to shout “Amen!” Sorry to hear about your frustrating travel.

    My family and I recently had the great pleasure of experiencing a 17-hour delay by United. This included boarding at midnight only to have the airline cancel the flight until the next day. Psych! My situation was also avoidable if the airline had only exercised a tiny bit of foresight and planning. No such luck. When we disembarked at 1 am, we were told to go to customer service which was empty at that hour. We had to find customer service located in another concourse, wait in line for an hour, and then the reps could do nothing beyond giving us a blanket and $10 food voucher. It was a trip that our three young kids will remember! And one I wish I could forget.

  11. Frances Haertling says:

    I am disabled and have to wait for a wheelchair to take me to a connecting flight. People like me are totally sunk under circumstances like this bc we can’t hoof it to make a connection.

    • Ann Handley says:

      You know, I was thinking about disabled friends/family while I was racing through the terminals and thinking, “At least I *can* hoof it.” You’re right, of course.

  12. EK says:

    This is my first time on your website — someone posted this on facebook. I think there is some irony here: on one hand you think they shouldn’t have cleared other people on standby for your first flight while you were running to your gate. On the other hand, you got on the next flight off STANDBY (!!!) because someone didn’t show up. How do you know that person wasn’t running to the gate while you were boardingt? Did you forego your standby seat just in case they were almost at the gate?

    I actually think Delta did the right thing in both situations. Sure they may know your connecting flight landed, but do they know how physically able you are to run to the next gate? Do they know if you stopped to pee or get a sandwich or you dropped your phone? Where does this end? They waited until the final few minutes of boarding and then cleared people for standby both times.

    • Ann Handley says:

      Hi EK — That irony wasn’t lost on me. But is it up to passengers to decide whether to board a plane on standby? That seems a stretch.

      I’m suggesting that a little communication between the incoming flight and the connecting flight could have helped. In my case certainly, but also in all cases.

      Thanks for chiming in!

  13. Donna Moritz says:

    I felt your pain reading this Ann. But it was peppered with moments of being entertained and laughing out loud at a mix of your sentences involving tiny-armed T-Rex’s (anything involving a tiny-armed T-Rex is always a winner for me) and superbly perfect GIFs. But back to the point. This: “What jumped out at me was the language. Not “we need to fix this” but “what do you want to do?” Their perspective is upside down and inside out! I agree, customer service on airlines is going down the toilet and in this case, if they are going to have such a thing as a connecting flight then for the love of god, stand by the connection and don’t bump someone! I just don’t get it.

    Now for a story for you that just baffles me. I don’t mind flying long haul. I’m Aussie. We have to. We embrace it and get really good at it. But what I don’t get is the pesticide spraying with passengers ON the aircraft, as if we have flown in from a post apocalypic world… we fly home (including visitors to Australia which I think is horrific). Now, many (the airlines that do it) would say it’s Australia’s fault. We (as in our Govt Quarantine) require planes to be sprayed. But I’ve checked with Quarantine and unfortunately although they require it they do NOT require people to be IN the plane. Most airlines wait till we disembark. A few don’t, apparently for quick turnaround. Ugh. Noticeably, Qantas no longer spray with people on board and I wonder if this is directly related to a couple of of suits against them by flight attendants with wierd neurological issues.

    I’ve had it done to me once by Hawaiian Airlines entering Brisbane. They claimed it was compulsory, Quarantine said not true, and that they did it for the quick turnaround. I was sick for a week with a sore throat and flu and I rarely get sick from flying. I’m not sure what happend to the baby with it’s mother cowering over her body crying out “please, don’t spray my baby”.

    I’d forgotten about it until last week when it happened to me again on Canadian Air. Two cans up and down the aisles opened over our heads so we could get the full beneift of the pesiticide-filled air.

    I complained and said that I react to pesticides and I was told the Australian Authorities demand it. I counter claimed that it was not required to have us IN the plane while spraying. That’s when the gaggle of attendants surrounded me and told me to shut up. One of them accused me of ruining her day. I suggested that possibly my next week would be ruined when I get sick. People around me started to complain and I was enemy no 1 and decided to shut up while covering my head with two blankets to at least reduce the ingestion.

    They kept us in the cabin for 20 minutes to make sure we got a good dose. All I know is that this can’t be good. And I’ll be carrying a mask with me on all flights from now on. Especially if my kids are with me. Now to decide if it will be Korean-style and acceptable or full face WWII gas mask. I am suspecting version no 2 will cause mass hysteria so I may have to pick the conservative type. I just don’t want to be part of some longitudinal study about their so-called safe practices.

    All I know is that customer care is not at the forefront with any of this. And I hope one day pesticides are sent to the same place smoking on board was sent. Away.

  14. Leslie says:

    Your expectations with your delayed flight on Delta were totally spot-on. They shouldn’t have let the standby passengers on, knowing that you were running for it.

    As for social media and empowerment, I’m doing social media management for a couple of months as a short-term project. It’s for a pretty large brand, and I have to run almost every single interaction not from a standard sheet of responses by a senior director, who will often change one or two minor words. It’s absurd and is micro-managing in the worst way. Look, I get that you need to be on brand, and all that. But your customers just want help or recommendations, and they aren’t like, “Oooh, she said ‘happy to help’ instead of ‘thrilled to help.”

    • Leslie says:

      I also realize that I have several horrible run-on sentences going on in my impassioned response, and I apologize!

    • Ann Handley says:

      Thanks, Leslie. I’d go back to my original suggestion — that social media teams need to be trained and empowered differently. Some big brands do it well: JetBlue comes to mind.

      • Karen Licker says:

        Wow, what a story….and def agree with your point re: the empowerment of social media teams. I find that the problem exists in the design of teams themselves, as social media teams are now often only an extension of the traditional call center, that was also never empowered to do anything to help. If social for service is available beyond the hours of traditional, then they should help, or not even exist, as the visibility with the inability to help is more hurtful than not having an online presence at all. Just my 2 cents.

  15. John Cooke says:

    I try to teach the Cape May businesses listening is the key ingredient to any Social program. Heck that’s how we met. My clients are amazed at the response they get when reaching out to people tweeting about their stay in Cape May.

    Sorry this was your experience. I will make sure it never happens in Cape May.

    JC

  16. David Reich says:

    I feel your pain, Ann. I have many crazy stories about airline travel that make absolutely no sense from a customer viewpoint. I can remember when air travel used to be v pretty cool…good treatment, minimal delays, plenty of legroom and FREE MEALS.

    Oh well. Those days are just distant memories now.

  17. John Bryan says:

    In the 60s & 70s, McDonalds built an empire on creating a repetitive measurable process for serving food that took all of the moment to moment decisions away from the employee. This raised quality consistency (note: not product quality) and process reliability while dramatically lowering costs of employees and materials. The rest of services-industry corporate America took note and implemented it themselves (i.e Airlines too). These customer service SNAFUs are a result of that continuous improvement process in the service sector. Employees are not empowered, trained, rewarded, or authorized to deviate from generic, standardized, or (importantly here) normalized responses to events in their workspace. They can’t give exceptional (read: exceptions) service as they’ve been trained and rewarded away from it. Technology and regulations give them even less opportunity to make decisions while being rewarded for other metrics (gate close times or customer order entry times).

    • Ann Handley says:

      Thanks for the comment, John. I love the link you drew between “exceptions” and “exceptional.” I need to think more about that — but there’s definitely a lesson in there somewhere.

  18. Hi Ann:

    I tried to order soup at an Olive Garden recently and was told I could not. What?? I thought this was a restaurant?! No, the (not too nice) waiter told me, “we have a new policy and you cannot order your soup unless you give me your whole order with it.” But, I’m not sure what I want…but I definitely want some soup right away, for starts!
    N O P E. Not possible. You’re kidding me, right? OMG It was for real, this waiter who I’m supposed to later tip REFUSED to take my soup order. I’m not kidding. I said I need a new waiter then. He said he’ll get the manager. I tried to explain that a customer should be able to order in whatever time and fashion (and order) they want and I didn’t understand a no to my order policy. The manager defended the policy rather than giving me my damn soup easy peasy. He said if the waiter does take my soup order now and then I order, he will have an extra step to perform in their POS system. What do I care? I don’t want to know about their new policy or care if the waiter has to push a few more keys, I just want my soup! It was a really ridiculous situation and clearly customer service had no part in it! People don’t believe me when I tell this story—they think I’m kidding but, I was out with my parents so I have witnesses!! Imagine a food business that refused my food order and that’s the bottom line.

    I wanted to upgrade my phone and get a new iPhone at Verizon shortly after the restaurant debacle. The guy ONLY wanted to sell me a Droid. Period. I said I’m more interested in a new iPhone and he proceeded to make the best pricing deal upgrade he could offer (I was overdue to upgrade so promised some deal to do so) for a shiny new Droid. I said, I think I want an iPhone, can you give me my best deal and pricing for that? He was so pissed I asked for iPhone pricing, (which is exactly what I asked for from the get-go) he literally ripped up the paperwork he had written up and ran in a circle and threw the pieces in the air right in front of the whole store. My hubby thought this was hysterical but, I wasn’t that amused. I told him what I wanted to buy but he refused to listen or care, for that matter. He had only one deal he wanted to make and I wasn’t hooked as I was supposed to be. I said again, so can you tell me the deal I can get on an iPhone. He said there’s no deals even as an upgrade. I said well, spell it out anyway so I can decide what I will buy. Finally, all aggravated and pissy, the guy says it will cost you xxxx so I say, hmmm, so your forcing me into your Droid deal for a whopping savings of $30. I’ll stick with my Apple then. On top of the minimal $30 difference, I was able to get a much bigger phone memory and connectivity with my address books etc. making it well worth it for me. But then, to top off this great buying experience, he refused allowing me to buy the iPhone outright saying I had to spread the buy in my billed payments. HELP! Again, another salesperson who refuses to sell me something!! I’m starting to think I shouldn’t go anywhere, ever. I said whatever…I need to get out of here!

    Finally, I have two more customer service horror stories but the funny part to tell you iof them is this. In the end, both of these companies ended up being the nicest and easiest to deal with when I decided to give up on getting answers or help from them and close the accounts. Closing my (in one case big money) accounts was by far the best experiences I ever had with them. Sad, but true!!

    I often think of how much traveling you do, Ann, and feel like it must be hell and yet, you are always so lovely everywhere you go. It just goes to show, the miserable around us can make us laugh rather than cry. At least that’s how I’ve taken these customer no satisfaction mishaps, for the most part.

    Yet sometimes I want to just jump out a window in disbelief. My own thing as a biz owner for nearly 3 decades now is to make my customers WANT to pay me! They are so happy, they willingly fork over the dough! Yep.

    Well, hope your weekend is fun and relaxing!! Sue-Ann

  19. Josh Bernoff says:

    I’ve been there. Literally. In the Atlanta airport, the running and screaming and the whole bit. Only in my case, the other passenger who was running along with me was a mom with a 3-year old. Try doing that!

    You mentioned the technology . . . I see two trends here. One is making things smaller and tighter and more automatic to squeeze all the cost out of it (as well as the humanity). The second is making the algorithms smarter. The second lags the first, which is why the experience keeps getting worse even as the technology gets better. Eventually the algorithm will get smart enough to know you’re on an incoming connecting flight and hold the seat for you. But by then the seat is going to be 18 inches from the seat in front of it and the flight attendant is going to be a robot that doesn’t give a shit about you as a human being.

    • Ann Handley says:

      I can’t imagine doing that hustle with a 3-year-old!

      I don’t think your prediction is far off. But since we already have the 18-inch seating space… maybe I’m looking forward to the robot flight attendant?

  20. Jeff Rothe says:

    As a snowstorm approached the US East coast, the airline with which I was ticketed from Dayton to Burlington (via Pittsburgh and Laguardia) told me when I got to Pittsburgh that NYC was closed. But they could get me to Logan. The gate agent said, “The staff in Boston will work with you to get you home from there.” Got to Logan but the airline counter was dark. I found a uniformed agent and explained my situation. The agent said, “Go to baggage claim and get yours. I’ll meet you there with our shuttle.” Mario met me there, took me to the Logan Hilton and set me up with a room. Then he said, “Get checked in, freshen up and I’ll meet you at the bar.” Mario bought me several drinks and the next day I was safe, happy and warm at home in Vermont. And a loyal customer.

    That was Allegheny Airlines in 1976.

    What has changed since then?
    1. The ticket price was MUCH higher: about equal in $1976 as now in $2017 for the same city-to-city service.
    2. Airline travel was special then. Passengers felt privileged to be able to fly, and it showed in their respect for other passengers and airline personnel. Today it’s a free-for-all——for carry-ons, gate seats, charge stations, boarding order, in-flight amenities, upgrades, perks and loyalty points.
    3. Flight attendants back then had to pass strict guidelines for personal demeanor and appearance. Now the airlines are obliged to hire almost anyone who dreams of “seeing the world”.
    4. Social media, the internet, and class-action lawyers have proliferated an attitude of “best hacks” or “screw them” in every industry. Passengers today feel entitled to first class treatment for coach fares.

    None of these points are a valid excuse for mistreating a passenger or turning a deaf ear to a legitimate complaint. Yours, Ann, is obviously legitimate. AND the people with whom I must regularly fly are about the rudest class of human beings out there today. Most coach class passengers want the “jet set” perks and treatment but are unwilling to treat their fellow passengers and the flight personnel with reciprocal respect. I do not condone the passenger mistreatment that some airline workers have been accused of late. And I understand why they may be frustrated.

    I think now is an opportunity for an airline to start some “business only” service between key destinations. A whole plane positioned between commercial flying and private jets. That might bring some civility back to business flying. The ticket price might be unseemly… but not so your fellow passengers and flight crew.

    Unfortunately, it may only serve to make commercial passengers even more rude.

  21. Tutu Helper says:

    Another great blog, Ann! 😉

  22. I only fly Delta, and I was so disappointed to see them in the news recently for kicking that family off. But that wasn’t enough to sway my dedication. But now they’ve disappointed you, I might have to rethink my choice of airlines. 😉

    But seriously. It amazes me how little customer service it takes to impress me. AND how few brands seem to realize how simple it is to ‘step over the stick’.

    Hope you don’t have any issues getting to Chicago, I am looking forward to seeing you speak!

  23. Dee Boling says:

    Many years ago I few on Delta and due to weather, our flight was diverted to a different airport and we were grounded for the night. Delta sent us to a hotel at least an hour a way. We were waiting and waiting to check in to our rooms which were on Delta’s dime. It was late – after midnight – and the line was not moving. Suspecting I knew what was going on, I pulled out my cell and called the hotel to see if I could book a room. As I thought, the hotel was booked solid and had no rooms. So Delta sent us to the hotel by bus on an hour’s trip without actually checking to see if there was availability. I called Delta and advised them what was going on and roused the rabble around me. Delta finally picked us back up and drove us BACK to the airport to a property right next to the airport. By the time I got to the room, it was 4am and we had been rebooked on a 7am flight. I called Delta again and told them there was no way I was sleeping for less than 2 hours then getting on the plane, so they re-rebooked me for a 9:30am flight.

    During that whole fiasco, I decided that Delta stands for: Delivering Exceptionally Lousy Travel Assistance.

    Of course the reality is that this is par for the course on any airline, although I’ve generally had success with USAirways when they operated and American since they bought USAirways. Last year, even though we booked 3 seats together, my family was separated when we got our boarding passes. The flight attendants couldn’t have been nicer. They moved people around to accommodate us and said “this just shouldn’t happen!” They also gave my husband and me complementary wine.

    Others will have negative American stories, but this one is the one I share and keeps me going back to American.

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  25. Thanks for ranting for all of us frequent fliers – whew! I’m breathing, but blood boiling.

    Your odyssey took me right back to late March when my Delta flight from Vail, CO (a super small airport with one or two flight options a day to any destination) to ATL was cancelled due to lack of crew; flight attendants had been injured in turbulence on a recent inbound flight. Given the scenario, most passengers were pretty sympathetic and although at the time the Delta in-person customer service agents were great (we all got copious hotel and meal vouchers and were rebooked on an early flight the next day), again there was poor lack of contingency planning.

    Delta rescheduled our flight to depart at *7:30AM* (ouch) the next day, but the check-in line was so long and slow because Delta was so understaffed that it extended out the door. That’s when I took to Twitter, but got a more immediate response than you. Still, they weren’t really solving a problem (how could they?) but I thought, WTF I’ll just complain and maybe get a refund at least. They placated me with some bonus miles and a voucher I didn’t need, but refused to refund the considerable amount of miles I had redeemed for the cancelled flight in the first place.

    Delta then had to delay the departure time of the 7:30AM flight one hour. So as in your situation I wonder, why did they get us all up at the crack of dawn that day if they knew they didn’t have the staff available early enough to do check-in for a 7:30AM flight? Couldn’t we all have slept another hour? Clearly we could have, and they KNEW this ahead of time – 18 hours ahead! Aaargghh!

    You hit the nail on the head with this : “At what point does technology intended (in part) to improve the customer experience actually instead undermine it?” Yeah, “2001 a space odyssey” and “Minority Report” are here. We don’t need to worry about being “chipped” – we’ve already done it to ourselves (with our phones tracking our every move). I don’t have any answers but it’s time to bring humanity back into the equation and soon.

    And you slayed me with “folded into my rear seat, typing like a tiny-armed T-Rex on a laptop wedged between my body and the reclined seat in front of me.” Ann, I have so been there, too often, although mercifully this year I’m finally getting upgrades to at least Delta Plus and miraculously sometimes first class. A small, way too small, consolation prize for what increasingly feels like being held hostage vs. travel these days.

  26. I think that this may not be an issue of technology, but rather of Power, related to the widening gap between management and worker bees. It is also magnified by the “Zero Tolerance” culture – though not of poor customer service, but rather employees sometimes actually make mistakes. To limit mistakes, write more procedures and algorithms, and take away opportunities for decision-making.

    Sadly, I see this as a precursor to family violence and bullying. The employee with no power takes it at home; the powerless daughter takes it at school.

    Finally, I see this as being driven by the stock market, of which I participate. Honestly, I would rather have fewer dividends if it meant the employees of the company were respected – and held accountable – for their judgment.

  27. In my experience it is an issue of empowering people to make decisions. They tie employee hands and that is absolutely mind-numbing to me and everyone else. To any sentient creature;-) I will say this…I have also had great service on airlines recently, too, so it is possible. It is an issue of culture and one of how much they will empower the people on the front lines of the brand: customer service. That’s where brands reinforce (or destroy) who they are via the values they say they care about. I also admit I am a bit happy to hear – bear with me – that many of us get treated similarly. I would love to believe that in most cases we are treated equally (bad or good) regardless of who we are. Sadly, I do not think that is the case. I would hope airlines give a crap about doing the right thing regardless of how many twitter followers a person has or Klout score. I am not sure. That is how much airlines have to go to restore service. And trust. For all of us.

  28. Katybeth says:

    I’m sorry, but the absurdity of your story had me howling with laughter—”tiny armed T-Rex.” 

    I wonder how these shrugging customer service reps feel when they are on the other end of bad service. Do they notice? What prevents companies from empowering their employees to take responsibility for their customers experience? Hopefully it isn’t because they don’t care, but it sure seems that way sometimes.

    The other day, after I thanked a salesperson for handing me my purchase, she said, “You’re welcome” and smiled at me instead of saying, “No problem” and turning away. She stepped over the stick, and I noticed. The bare minimum caught my attention.

    I am truly sorry for your awful, horrible, no-good, travel experience! But just remember those peanuts the passengers were snacking on cost $7.50 a bag!

  29. Hello Ann Handley,

    This is my first time on your blog. It’s sad to hear your story, yeah sometimes these airlines do
    some silly mistakes, which could be real time irritating and brain freezing.
    Indeed if a person if flying on to the same flight, they should keep the track and not release
    the seats to the standby passengers.
    Anyway sometimes travelling could turn out to be far more
    hectic and thrown away than we really thinks. Glad to hear that despite of all these hurdles you were
    able to make to your event.
    Thank you.
    Have a great weekend ahead 🙂
    Shantanu sinha

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  31. Brett H. says:

    Companies aren’t at war with their customers, they are at war with their employees. If we can worry about what language a low level employee uses, can we also think about the fact that they’re probably receiving a minuscule fraction of the salary that the nearest manager with authority to make a meaningful change to policy would make? Put another way, why do we, as people, expect dehumanized “flight attendants” or “customer service agents” to care about similarly dehumanized “customers”? They’re doing hard work, for low pay, at a company whose purpose for existence is to make shareholders wealthy. The very idea that we expect personal service in a system structured this way is kind of ridiculous. Customer service is a sham. It is a manufactured identity imposed upon low wage automotans who haven’t got anything better to do do. None of the participants in this story actually give two shakes about customers. Delta cares about the math underlying the customer relationship (revenue vs cost). The CSA cares about their paycheck, and in America, possibly health insurance. If any of them could just take your money without giving you anything back, they would. The only people I’ve ever seen ACTUALLY care about a customer have a direct stake in the results of the business, and even then, not always. The customer service problem is a red herring. Every time I travel in America remembering this all helps me keep perspective.

  32. Tony Gnau says:

    Soooo frustrating! I totally get it. I think anyone who flies regularly has a similar story (regardless of airline), which is sad.

    Keep up the good fight!

  33. Mike Davison says:

    Hi Ann,

    I’ve flown hundreds of times all over the world and one of the constants that I have noticed is that if something small goes wrong and the problem lasts for more than 15 minutes then it becomes a much bigger issue.

    Another thing that I have noticed is that this sort of issue is far more likely to happen on internal domestic flights than it is on international flights. For some reason airline staff are far more likely to treat you badly if you aren’t leaving the country.

    Given that you were connecting to a flight on the same airline it is amazing in this internet age that they were not expecting you and were not ready with a solution for your situation.

  34. LeadLake says:

    Hey Ann,

    I have been liking your blogs and your videos, so i would be glad if you visit our site.

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