Sunday, September 21, 2003

Delta tries to make customers love to fly



By James Pilcher
The Cincinnati Enquirer

HEBRON - Airline customer service might seem like an oxymoron to some, but to Delta Air Lines, it's serious business.

Officials acknowledge they have taken away some attention from treating customers right and that Delta's reputation as an industry leader in customer service has lost some of its luster. Now, they're refocusing on that area.

"There's no question that in the last year, Delta's primary focus has been on our financial performance ... and what that did is take our eye off the customer service ball," Delta chairman and chief executive officer Leo Mullin said. "That was my only year in 61/2 years at Delta that this has happened, but it was something we had to do given the grave uncertainty and our commitment to avoid bankruptcy.

"Now that we have sufficiently removed the specter of bankruptcy, we've made the decision to really get back on track with our customer service."

Whether the new effort, which began this summer and has included rallies and summits hosted by Delta's top executives, will actually make a difference in Delta's bottom line - or convince jaded passengers that things have changed - remains to be seen.

Anything could help, however, given that Delta's passenger counts are actually dropping on its large jet service compared with the same time last year, while travel on its regional subsidiaries and affiliates is climbing.

And the airline, the nation's third largest, continues to suffer losses of hundreds of millions of dollars each quarter.

Delta won't disclose how much it is spending on the effort, saying only that it includes the previously announced $30 million expenditure on redesigning 81 airports and installing thousands of automated self-service kiosks to speed service. But officials anticipate an overall positive impact of $300 million annually by 2005, with the new benefits including lower labor costs as well as potential new passenger revenue.

One passenger recently traveling through the airline's hub at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport was impressed. A friendlier, faster process that includes greeting travelers at the door instead of having them come to a counter could be enough to get him to book Delta over other airlines.

"As long as the price is the same," said John Ammons, a manager for a Paragould, Ark., packing company, who flies often out of Memphis. "All things being equal after that, I would definitely fly Delta."

Ammons had been helped by customer service agent Cindy Reeves, who says the new emphasis on customer service is helping employees as much as passengers.

"We get to intermingle with the passengers, which makes it a lot more fun," Reeves, a 16-year Delta veteran from Burlington, said. "And it's good to hear that the top managers are taking what we do seriously and realizing that we are the face of the company. That helps morale."

Improved ratings sought

Delta's effort also includes focusing on the airline's performance in areas such as flight cancellation and on-time rates, as well as bag service. Mullin says an informal goal is to be in the top three carriers for all three measurements from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The airline currently ranks fifth between August 2002 and July 2003 for on-time arrivals at 82.8 percent among the top 17 airlines, according to the latest report by the department. Delta ranked fifth in July with a cancellation rate of 0.8 percent, and it ranked eighth in mishandled bags with a rate of 3.7 bags lost per 1,000 passengers. Airline officials say that 99 percent of mishandled bags arrive on the next flight.

But the new focus also stresses a back-to-basics emphasis for front-line workers.

The workers are being asked to be friendlier and more helpful to help Delta recapture its reputation of going the extra step, something veteran Delta fliers say has been missing for a long time.

Airport workers are now stressing the "high five" approach, focusing on being welcoming, helpful, efficient, caring and proactive.

Flight attendants are being given a small card that lists 10 things that they can do to improve service, including "owning the boarding door" by greeting "each customer in a genuine, caring, and appreciative way, knowing that we may be the customer's first personal contact with Delta."

"This is very clear that this is not new news, and we are getting back to the playbook that we wrote in the first place," said Sharon Wibben, Delta's vice president of in-flight operations. "This gets back to the basic things that customers are asking for."

Criticisms heard

At one recent summit at a hotel near the local airport, Delta's senior vice president and chief executive officer Vicki Escarra said the stakes couldn't be greater for the effort.

She showed a video of a recent analyst conference that included sharp criticisms of major carriers such as Delta from the leaders of low-cost airlines JetBlue and AirTran, interspersed with messages such as "they have the spirit stick. We want it back."

"They're talking about us, and do we want that to continue?" Escarra asked the crowd of employees.

"We cannot be in business in a service industry in the long term without focusing on our customers," Escarra said later. The video she showed here will be played in worker lounges throughout Delta's system.

Others aren't so sure about the potential impacts of the new approach. Airline expert and passenger advocate David Stempler says stressing customer service is a good thing, but that it won't sway any buying decisions normally driven by price, availability and frequent flier relationships.

"They are basically avoiding a negative," Stempler, president of the Washington-based Air Travelers Association, said.

"People remember a bad experience much more strongly than a good one. So eliminate the bad ones, and then the good ones will remain."

And frequent traveler Kevin Larsen of Bridgetown says it will take a lot for Delta to overcome its increasing insistence on new fees, recent changes to its frequent-flier program and overall bottom-line mentality.

"They used to honestly take care of loyal customers ... but now, it's no waivers and no favors," said Larsen, who flies about once a month for either business or fun.

When asked what it would take to convince him that Delta has changed, Larsen admits he was stumped.

"When you talk to 100 Delta fliers, 99 of them will say that Delta has the best front-line people in the industry," Larsen said. "But a lot of them are still worried about being laid off and by new policies out of their control. So I guess it would take a huge change ... before they show me that they are listening to what passengers are saying they want."

E-mail jpilcher@enquirer.com




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