January 2, 2014

So when exactly did Delta Air Lines begin channeling its inner JetBlue and decide it no longer wanted to be a loathsome legacy air carrier?

It’s a question I’ve been mulling lately, having frequently flown with Delta back and forth across the country, and experiencing a rather impressive level of customer service along the way that is highly unusual for a major airline. That I was even willing to fly Delta again is testament to the notion that impactful branding requires far more than slick ads and positive press coverage. At the end of the day, much of it ultimately comes down to the performance of the customer-facing employees on the frontlines of “living the brand.” They are ultimately the ringmasters of the customer experience.

I’ll spare you the details, but several years ago I swore I’d never fly Delta again because of a frustrating incident involving my frequent flyer miles. But I was forced to take a Delta flight to Detroit from New York last spring because they are pretty much the only game in town if you are heading to the Motor City. As I was less than enthused to find myself in one of their seats, I incessantly waxed on to the woman in the seat next to me how much I despised Delta when she casually asked what I thought about the airline.

Well, as it turned out, my seatmate works in Delta’s corporate sales department. Rather than take offense at my comments, she suggested that perhaps I hadn’t been treated fairly and, to make it up to me, she said she was going to upgrade me to Gold Medallion status, which one earns after reaching 50,000 qualifying miles. I appreciated the gesture, of course, but didn’t expect her to follow through on it. Several days later, however, I received an email from her letting me know I was no longer on the lower rungs of Delta’s loyalty program.

I’ve long been suspicious of frequent flyer programs and status levels (see here and here), but being Gold Medallion does indeed have some meaningful benefits.  On several occasions the airline has automatically upgraded my seat, even on some jam-packed, cross-country flights. You also get priority boarding privileges and access to supposedly faster security lines, though on a few occasions I’ve found the regular security lines to actually be quicker. And, of course, one free checked bag.

What impresses me though, is the increasing number of Delta employees who continually go beyond “standard operating procedure” when thrown a curveball.  For example, I recently asked a gate agent in San Francisco whether I could use my reward miles to upgrade to business class.  Though upgrades are supposed to be negotiated at least 24 hours in advance, she was willing to override the system without hesitation to accommodate me. I had a similarly positive interaction with a call service agent who had to navigate a bit of computer turbulence to get me a mileage upgrade outside the norm. Indeed, this “whatever it takes” mindset is increasingly pervasive, as is the happy vibe I’ve gotten from more than a dozen Delta pilots and flight attendants when asked if they like working for the company.

Admittedly, there are still a significant percentage of Delta’s 80,000 employees who don’t represent the brand as productively, but the airline seems determined to weed them out.  I recently was put off by the unexpectedly dismissive attitude of a call center agent and shared my thoughts on the automated survey at the conclusion of the call.  There was one simple but very telling question: “If I ran a customer service center, on a scale from one to five, how likely would I be to hire the person I just spoke with?” The pointedness of the question suggests Delta truly wants to know what lies at the heart of the customer experience, an undeniably forceful influence on brand perception. For me to believe they authentically care now about their customers is no mean feat given my earlier cynicism.

Delta has deservedly received accolades for its social media efforts (see here), though its traditional media relations skills could use some honing.  The airline was recently exposed for canceling a commercial flight to charter a University of Florida basketball team on Thanksgiving weekend; an airline spokeswoman said the swap was “due to operational need and aircraft routing requirement as a result of the busy travel holiday.” That kind of doublespeak only served to further agitate and alienate the displaced passengers.

Employees can be an organization’s greatest brand ambassadors or its greatest brand detractors. Delta seems to have figured that out and, given the number of times I’ve had minor rules bent for me, has clearly empowered those in a position to make a difference with customers to do so, even if it’s not in their job description.

Yet for all its improvements, Delta has a way to go before it can match JetBlue’s commitment to customer service. Last month, JetBlue delayed my early morning flight some two hours.  I didn’t like the way the gate agents managed the situation, and much to my surprise, someone at JetBlue also noticed.  Without me even lodging a complaint, JetBlue credited me $50 because of the delay.  And on my return flight, when there was a threat of a possible snowstorm, an understanding JetBlue agent named Monica let me depart a day earlier without incurring a significant change fee despite the fact that New York airports weren’t yet on a weather alert.

In the airline business, when it comes to highly responsive customer service, JetBlue still sets the industry standard, but Delta is clearly determined to give them a heck of a run for their money.