Sick of Surly Airline Staff? Delta Sends 11,000 Employees to Charm School

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REUTERS/Rebecca Cook RC/DY

The Atlanta-based airline hopes customer-service classes will help its staff lose the ‘tude, and bring back service with a smile. (via Wall Street Journal)

But Delta has a long way to go before passengers will forget its abysmal record in 2010. During the first nine months of last year, Delta recorded the highest rate of customer complaints with the Department of Transportation. It finished the year with the highest rate of canceled flights. And, as of November 2010, it was ranked second-to-last for on-time arrivals among major carriers. “Nobody here aspires to being what we were last summer,” said Delta Executive Vice President Glen Hauenstein.

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So, as part of a $2 billion improvement plan, the airline is sending its ground staff to finishing school. All employees who come face-to-face with travelers—that includes ticketing agents, gate agents and their supervisors—must attend a one-day session where they engage in role play scenarios with angry, confused and lost customers. Scenes involve late-arriving passengers who will likely miss their next flight and travelers with lost luggage that contains important medicines. Apparently some staff need to be taught that the goal is to assist customers, not to pass them on to someone else.

Adjusting an employee’s attitude is one thing; bending the rules is something else entirely. Delta doesn’t encourage staff to bypass procedures or offer waivers as part of the training. Instead, the airline emphasizes delivering bad news with a smile instead of a scowl. Should customers complain about baggage fees, staff shouldn’t blame fuel prices. And they should never apologize for the fees, but explain that they are part of an “a la carte” program where customers pay for what they use.

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“That is a better way to have that conversation,” Michael Hazelton, a Delta agent and trainer, told the Journal. “You may think you are bonding with the customer by agreeing the fees are horrible, but the customer thinks, ‘This person just threw his company under the bus.'”

Depending on the customer’s point of view, that could be a bonding experience.