Monday, March 19, 2012

We don't make the rules

There is no comment more infuriating to a customer than when you ask for a reasonable accommodation from a service attendant, and when s/he turns you down and you ask, "Why?" and s/he says, "We don't make the rules."

I had a quick round trip between Boston and New York today and used my accumulated Delta Airlines frequent flier miles to acquire the tickets on the Shuttle. Before leaving Logan, I asked a gate agent if it would be all right to take an earlier flight home than the flight I had reserved. She looked it up and noted that, while I had a certain class of seat, it would be no problem to switch to an earlier flight, especially as the plane was likely to be quite empty. So I expedited my business in New York and arrived a LGA in plenty of time to catch the 2:30 plane instead of the 3:30.

At the ticket desk in New York, the agent said: "That change will be an additional $50."

Me: "But the flight is empty, it is the same routing, and your Boston agent told me I could switch if I got here early."

"We don't have any of that class of seats available."

"It is really annoying to be treated this way when I am a loyal customer."

"We don't make the rules."

You see above a picture of my airplane shortly before takeoff, so you can it was quite empty.  It cost Delta nothing to let me take the earlier flight.

Upon returning to Logan, I went back to the ticket counter and talked with a very friendly "red jacket" person -- the supervisor of the gate agents -- who in turn talked to three or four other people on the phone. None were able to help her to get me a refund or otherwise solve my problem. Finally, she gave me an 800 telephone number; the chain of phone prompts -- dial 800-335-8241, option 8, option 2, option 8, option 6, and ask for a live agent -- and instructions of what to say.  I called, and an equally pleasant person answered, told me that she would need to confer with her supervisor, and, while unable to refund the extra charge, gave me a $50 voucher towards a future flight.

So, let's review this and pick up some lessons. In doing so, let's compare this experience with what would have happened at a place like the Gaylord Palms Resort in Florida.

First, no one at the Gaylord would have said to a customer, "We don't make the rules."  If, indeed, there were strict rules, there would have been a logical explanation given to the customers for the rules.  Second, the associate would never have let the customer leave the front desk without offering something to make the customer satisfied and wanting to come back again.  Third, in contrast to the "red jacket" person's need to talk to three people on the phone to remedy the problem, at the Gaylord she would have been empowered to have refunded the money or issue a voucher on her own.  Fourth, a person of her rank would never have left the customer alone to call an 800 number to find a fix.  She would have gotten on the phone with me and made sure that the person at the other end was responsive.

So, the upshot is that, although I had satisfactory outcome, the process for getting there was clumsy and wasteful.  It took time from at least six Delta employees to work on my issue.  No one was empowered to solve the problem.  I think this reflects a lack of trust on the part of the company towards its people.  Finally, of course, the experience did not serve to make me a more loyal customer (beyond the $50 I will someday use on another flight!)  That I had to spend an inordinate amount of time trying to solve the problem was troubling in itself.  But what was more disconcerting was the initial comment to me:  "We don't make the rules."  It was dismissive and unfeeling.  Moreover, it made me feel that the person who said it did not himself have loyalty to the company.  If an employee does not, why should I?


e-Patient Dave said...

What strikes me is, this is what you get with a company (in this case Delta) that profoundly disempowers its employees: some come right out and tell you that, and others actually give you wrong answers, probably with the best of intention.

I'll bet you dollars to donuts that the N.Y. agent has either been beaten for or been threatened with beatings for failing to extract the $50 from a passenger regardless of whether it makes any sense.

And it's no surprise to me that not a soul was able to refund the money - just give you a discount IF you return to give them more business - not a bit of help for anyone who's irritated and vows never to return. Classic.

Wouldn't ya like to have a face to face talk with the managers up the line, IF they'd be willing to sit & face a customer on whom their policies were inflicted?

PJ Geraghty said...

Without trying to get into your mind, how was this a "satisfactory outcome" for you?

Delta took an extra $50 from you, then wasted your time (and that of six different employees...certainly more than $50 in salary and benefits) before grudgingly agreeing to allowing you to use that $50 towards a future flight.

It's not clear what the load was on your original flight, but if they were oversold, you actually did them a favor, instead of the other way around. Same thing if there was a chance of weather difficulty or a mechanical issue with the plane...getting you back to Boston earlier meant they'd have to rebook one less person.

I sometimes fly another airline (based out of Dallas, known for low fares) and this is the one rule that they have that makes me crazy (a significant cost to change to an earlier flight)...why not make such changes free on a first-come, first-serve basis?

Paul Levy said...

True, in that only the money was somewhat satisfactory.

Neville Sarkari MD, FACP said...

I think that this clearly is a result of corporate culture rather than policy. Of course, culture drives the policies.

PJ above mentions flying on SWA. I try my very best to do all my flying with them simply because their culture is geared toward doing the right thing most of the time. Certainly my experiences with them have been far better than with the others.

The reduction in available seats over the past 2-3 years has just made their poor customer service that much more visible...

clsmt said...

SWA has some of the best customer service in the business. I recently had to fly to visit family for a funeral on what was, by cruel coincidence, my son's fifth birthday. The flight attendants, upon finding out that it was his special day, gave him stickers, wished him a happy birthday over the intercom, gave him a pile of snacks and after the flight the pilot let him go in the cockpit and check out the controls on the plane. They even finnessed some sibling jealousy by talking to my daughter and admiring a picture she was drawing of the flight (which she then gave to the attendants).

Long story short, both my kids want to be pilots. The crew and pilot rescued my son's fifth birthday with a ton of happy memories (right after the flight we went straight to the memorial service but that's not what my son remembers about the day). I couldn't be more grateful.

Why shouldn't we expect this level of service from the "full service" guys?

Anonymous said...

Clear example of being treated like a piece of revenue vs. a loyal customer. The whole "class of seat" comment (compartmentalized structure of airplane revenue) is a little too much information for me. Is the upholstery adorning Seat 8B different from 28F - really?

At least you're not paying for a view ...

Anonymous said...

About 12 hours after this post appeared, I was at the Urban Grape, a wine store next to Star Market in Chestnut Hill MA. It was a minor matter where the person could easily have seen things my way but chose not to. Instead, the person said: ``I don't make the rules.'' I loved it! I suggested she read your blog Paul.