Delta’s $500,000 folly: Why customer service is key

I very rarely rant and rave about customer service, especially not the airline industry. I understand how many problems there are about it, and frankly, given the amount I travel, I'm probably one of the lucky ones to have avoided some of the more frustrating experiences. In fact, I've had some amazing experiences (even with Delta, who many regard as one of the more frustrating airlines), so much so that I wrote a letter to the supervisor of one customer service representative (Pilar from Cincinnati) letting her know that I received excellent service.

Times have changed. And Delta, you may have just made a very costly mistake.

I just went to go book a flight to NYC. Virgin America – who I love – has a great deal right now and was about to fly them when I remembered that I had $300 on Delta for a flight to Atlanta that I didn't use. They had given me the e-ticket number and said that when I needed to book if it wasn't easily apparent how to use this credit, to call them. I'm a Silver Medallion (almost Gold at this point) and called the Premium Service number only to be put on hold for 15 minutes. Fine – they're busy. When they answered, they told me that they couldn't help me without charging me $20 and suggested that they transfer me to the division that works with the online support. Ok, fine. Wherein I sat on hold for nearly forty minutes before I decided that was ridiculous, and I was going to call back the original customer service number. Ten minutes later, they again said there was nothing they could do – dismissive, yet not unkind – and said that they COULD help but they would have to charge me $20 to do so. No getting around it. I explained that I had been on hold for over an hour at this point, inquired about calling at a better time when I wouldn't have to wait as long (to which they had no suggestion nor insight) so I begrudgingly had them transfer me again. This time, it only took twenty minutes; while waiting, tried AGAIN to figure out where on the site to do this myself. To no avail. 

The woman that answered was nice; she may have been new, and I have to keep in mind that she probably deals with people far less internet savvy than I. I was patient with her, but she didn't explain the steps very well, nor did she immediately have the answer to what I would consider was a pretty common question; i.e., I have an unused ticket credit, where do I find the place to enter in this information. Also, note that there was no language barrier, but there seemed to be a barrier of airline industry knowledge. (She was very confused that I was flying from San Francisco to the New York Area and didn't care if it was JFK or LGA; I had to explain that typing in "NYC" in their system allows the system to search for all airports. At this point, I'm guessing she was a new employee.) So after being patient, having her put me on hold no less than three times to find out this answer, and having to have her actually walk through the process with me without being able to confidently tell me that if I hit 'continue' my credit card wouldn't be charged, we arrived at the conclusion that you can do this by hitting a radio button called 'e-Credits' and that would allow me to use the credits I had to purchase the ticket.

That took 25 minutes. At this point, I have spent nearly two hours on what should be a relatively easy answer to a very easy question.

I proceed to click and purchase the ticket, only to be told that the flight fare was no longer valid; I would have to pay $150 more to get this non-stop flight selection. The representative explained that there were other people also purchasing flights at the same time and because it took so long, it was probably no longer available. Whether that was the true explanation or not, I chose to cancel the purchase and try to recreate my steps in case it was a system fluke (note that was down for at least 1/2 hour today.) She apologized for the delay, which I appreciated, but I was still frustrated that her delay cost me over $150 on the flight. So I decided to call the Premium Sales Customer Service again. And this is where a frustrating, poor experience with process turned into an outright atrocious experience in personnel and customer service.

I waited ten minutes, which I've tonight discovered is normal, and got yet another person on the line. I explained to him the situation, and said in a very calm, very friendly voice that I was really frustrated that this had happened due to a lack of knowledge on her part. Before I could even finish my sentence he cut me off in a gruff voice, saying "Nothing I can do." I replied "Sir, I haven't actually asked you to do anything at this point", explaining that I was frustrated given the fact that I just basically lost $150+ by waiting on the ineptitude of another Delta employee. He cut me off again, said there was nothing he could do. At this point I took a moment, took a deep breath, and kindly started to tell him that I had been a loyal Delta customer for over…

"Like I said, there's nothing I can do."

I was trying to explain to him that I had flown with this airline, choosing it above other airlines for years, based on their customer service as well as my Medallion status and program offerings, and he had cut me off, again. 

Now it was getting ridiculous. Know this about me as well; I don't have a hot temper. If anything, I hold back far too much, and try to put myself in someone else's shoes. And I could tell that the person who I was speaking with on the phone wasn't loving his job. So I said to him "Sir, it sounds like you're frustrated right now" and was beginning to tell him that I understood that the industry was really difficult, that I knew his hands might be tied, to which he said "I am NOT frustrated. There's nothing I can do." At which point I decided this conversation was futile, and said "Actually, there is something you could have done. You may not have been able to solve my problem, but you certainly could have been nicer, and could have at least listened to me before cutting me off. Repeatedly. You have lost my business." And I hung up. 

I will not be traveling on Delta for this flight, and I'm seriously considering canceling my Delta AmEx – which I keep open despite the yearly fee and high APR due to the perks that it does provide on the airline -as well as shifting all of my business to Virgin America, or as much as I can. The 'status' that I have on Delta is attractive; yes. Not that many people fly it cross-country (or at least to JFK, it seems), and I often get an automatic upgrade whenever I fly it. It's worth it to me to take the 6am flight to almost guarantee this upgrade; United's upgrade system pales in comparison, and having SFO as a hub, it's a rare day when I experience an upgrades on their airline. 

A customer is worth different things to different companies. LTV – lifetime value – varies depending upon your product price point, customer retention, frequency of purchase. For me, a frequent business AND personal traveler who flies at least 20 times a year, that could be a costly loss. Assume $500/flight – and that's a low estimate, given any international travel – they potentially lost at least $10,000 per year from my business alone, and assuming that I maintain my travel schedule for the next twenty years (which is probably a long shot), their poor behaviour this evening just cost the company $200,000. Not to mention the travel of my (future) husband and children. This could be a half of a million dollar mistake made by tired, frustrated, angry employees.

Something is clearly broken in Delta these days. I know they're still experiencing the aftermath of their merger with Northwest; perhaps the employees I spoke with this evening were part of that transition. Maybe everyone was having a bad day due to their website being down. There ar
e many explanations as to why I experienced what quite possibly was the most consistently poor service from an airline that I have remained loyal to specifically BECAUSE of their customer service. Or perhaps I should say FORMER customer service. Whatever the explanation, they just lost my business, and I'm not certain when they'll get it back. If they ever will. And that's a costly, COSTLY mistake.

10 thoughts on “Delta’s $500,000 folly: Why customer service is key

  1. Aubrey,
    I hear you. Delta sucks! I can not say one good thing about them. I hope people read your post and stay far away.
    Josh & I were in MN when our dog fell ill. It may not seem like a big deal to people who don’t have pets but Pete Dog was my baby. We had to take an earlier flight home. I called Delta and was put on hold for over 30 minutes then transferred for another 20. When I finally spoke with someone they said they could put us on a flight the next morning for $1000. I said that I already spent $600 originally for the tickets. They didn’t care. Meanwhile Josh was looking online for better fares with another airline. I told this to the delta operator and he said I should book this deal before someone else does. I said, “Wow, there’s nothing you can do?” He said, “There’s nothing I can do”. I booked the flight. No more than 5 minutes later, Josh finds tickets for us for $300. I call Delta. Wait again to talk to someone & when I do get a hold of them, I told them that I wanted to cancel the flight I just booked. They said there was a $300 cancellation fee. I yelled and they said there was nothing they could do.
    I told my uncle the story and the same thing happened to him. His father-in-law was in the hospital. He spent over $1000 and made it to the hospital 15 minutes after he died.
    It’s horrible when emergencies happen but it’s unforgivable when a company exploits the emergency.

  2. United is now doping the free, automatic upgrades much like DL. the program starts in February…
    I have flown them exclusively for 5 years (100k miles/yr) and have never had this kind of problem.
    Good luck!

  3. I was in FL panhandle for a family vacation when we got word a hurricane was approaching, but still a few days out. We decided to get out of town a few days early and not risk being there when the hurricane landed. I called Delta, explained the situation and asked to be put on an earlier flight home to avoid the coming chaos. DENIED. I even offered to drive to Tampa and several surrounding cities. We said they didn’t have to get us back to our home city — just a city within driving range and we’d rent a car from there. Again, DENIED. I was told I would have to book a last minute ticket or pay hefty change fee for each seat. I ended up sticking it out – waiting for original flight – which coincided with the outer bands reaching FL. We showed up at the airport – only to find 100% of flights canceled, cots in the airport, hurricane approaching. I was livid. I got in the car and drove the family to Nashville to find another flight and another airline. I felt Delta put my family in danger by not allowing us to change flights and get out of harms way. We were flexible on time and departure city — we just wanted out. But, according to Delta, that was only possible if we forked over a few grand. It was highway robbery and I’ve gone out of my way to avoid travel on Delta since then.

  4. You should totally write to Delta. My husband is really good at doing this. People higher up (if they care) need to know what their employees are actually saying and doing. I would also send the link to this blog post and say that your readers are anxiously awaiting their response. Wonder what they’ll have to say.

  5. I’ve learned, over the same lack of customer service experiences, that being a long time customer with any of these companies – airlines, mobile phone telcos, internet service providers – they don’t put the efforts of service into keeping their long term customers.
    As with you, Delta has been my main airline of choice for many years. It’s been 10 years since I flew more than 10 times a year, but even with my 3 flights a year now, I stick with Delta every chance I get. I had a poor experience with them in 2008, but it was to the credit of other staff who turned a shitty experience into something good.
    Your experience will stick in my mind next time I fly with them (this Thursday is my next flight from Orlando to Salt Lake City) and I hope that if my treatment is sub par and time wasting, I will reconsider future flights with another airline.

  6. I have experienced atrocious customer service from Delta as well. I don’t really like them. I have a fair amount of miles from them, but everything new is going on American or Southwest. I really like Southwest.
    Also…high-APR? Girl, pay off that debt, or at a minimum, transfer it to another card that will give you a low APR for a while! ( has a 2.99% lifetime APR, and anyone can join PenFed by paying the $20 fee to join the military family association.)
    But seriously…fewer trips in exchange for being debt-free is a trade I’d make any day. It’s worth it for the peace of mind.

  7. In my opinion Delta will eventually go out of business due to their customer service!
    In 2006 I flew Delta from AUS to LGA and on my return flight they lost my luggage. To say the experience of trying to deal with them to return my luggage was a nightmare, would be an understatement. I could go into the whole 6 month saga but will spare you the details except to say that there were at least 100 different things that the Delta customer service agents could have done to help me. Not only did the choose to be unhelpful, they were also downright rude over something that was 100% their own fault.
    The majority of my travel is personal and I would rather not go on vacation, etc… than have to fly Delta!

  8. I feel for you, I’ve dealt with similar situations with a lot of airlines recently. I rarely call them, other than if a flight is delayed/canceled to that I can skip the line at the counter & get the next available flight. And as much as I’d like to believe in the good deal, airline credits just aren’t worth the hassle to cash them in.
    Delta has been going down hill for years, & ever since they merged with NorthWest it’s not going to get any better anytime soon.
    I steer clear of branded credit cards & prefer to use my points as I like. I have an Amex card with several thousand points, & thus am able to transfer them to whichever airline I want as needed. I tend to get a economy seat, & then use the points to upgrade; which in turn pays me back at the end of the flight by 1/2 or more.

  9. Has anyone lost miles when they merged NWA and delta miles together? we lost ver 800,000 miles in the merger and delta claims that it was transferred over when it was obviously not! Anyone have a similar experience??

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