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Delta connections

Typically, when you think of airline connections, you think of events that occur between departure and arrival at your final destination.

But there’s another type of connection that’s equally important to the long-term success of an airline: personal connections.

I recently read a Wall Street Journal article about the customer service training being offered to 11,000 Delta Air Lines agents.

A few points in the article stood out:

1. Delta emphasizes being “present” when serving customers, suggesting that if agents don’t remember their last three customers, they’re just processing.

I loved this insight. In fact, employees who “just process” or simply go through the motions may be the single greatest barrier to companies achieving consistently high levels of customer satisfaction.

Every employee’s job is made up of both job functions (the duties associated with a job role) and job essence (his highest priority which, for most companies, is to create delighted customers). Issuing a boarding pass is a job function. Making a personal connection is job essence.

Many employees focus almost exclusively on job function. The result is accurate work that conforms to standards. In the process, however, customers often receive homogeneous, bland and uneventful service during the transaction and no personal connection is made.

2. After surveying customers, Delta discovered that one of their recurring frustrations was that “no one cared or apologized” when something went wrong.

Bravo to Delta for surveying its customers and learning how frustrating it is when employees don’t seem to care and refuse to apologize when something goes wrong. (Although this revelation is not surprising.)

Apathy or indifference conveyed by customer-contact employees is pervasive throughout the service industry—and airline agents are notoriously indifferent toward mishaps such as lost luggage, delays, and canceled flights.

By apologizing and expressing genuine interest when something goes wrong, employees can establish a personal connection, neutralize the customer’s frustration, and actually increase overall satisfaction and customer loyalty.

3. Later in the article, Delta reveals a peek behind the curtain at some of the lessons being taught to agents during the customer service training. For instance, “Never apologize for baggage fees when customers complain.”

I thought it was ironic that in the same article that Delta acknowledged customer frustration because “no one cared or apologized,” the airline would then advise its agents to “never apologize for baggage fees when customers complain.”

In fact, one of its customer service training role-play scenarios deals with customers who are angry when asked to pay baggage fees. If Delta knows this is a hot button with passengers, why escalate matters by instructing agents to refuse to apologize?

There’s no harm in apologizing to passengers by saying, “I’m sorry that you were surprised by the baggage fee.” From there, the agent can offer an explanation for the charge, such as: “To provide the best value, we offer an a la carte menu of services where customers pay only for what they use.”

It’s much easier to establish a personal connection with a disappointed passenger by apologizing and expressing genuine interest in working together to resolve her problem. It doesn’t mean the agent agrees with her position, for instance, on the merit of baggage fees. He is not admitting fault, making excuses, or assigning blame. He is simply empathizing.

The opportunity I see for Delta agents is to anticipate the problems that their customers will likely experience (lost luggage, delays, missed airline connections, baggage fees, etc.) and then rehearse problem resolution approaches that include the words “I’m sorry” and expressing genuine empathy.

In the airline industry, connections are important. And while properly boarding connecting flights is a vital job function, making personal connections is the essence of every agent’s job.

Order Delight Your Customers: 7 Simple Ways to Raise Your Customer Service from Ordinary to Extraordinary by Steve Curtin or purchase from select retailers, including Barnes & Noble.
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