Delta’s Ausband: “Customer service is very important to the bottom line”

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By Christopher Elliott

Here’s part two of my interview with Allison Ausband, Delta Air Lines’ vice president for reservations sales and customer care. You can read part one here.

Whatever happened to First Point of Contact? Does it still exist?

Absolutely. We’ve told our people either to fix it, or find someone who can, which is what First Point of Contact was all about. So, if you can’t solve a problem, raise your hand and talk to a leader.

Navigating customer service challenges

We just started a program with our customer support supervisors in reservations. If they get to an impasse with a customer, they offer to end the call and then call or email the customer back after a short break. It gives the supervisor the chance to review the situation and consider some options that perhaps they hadn’t considered.

Since Nov. 1, we’ve had 131 callbacks, and a 70 percent success rate with the program.

We now have more situational flexibility. We know there are going to be times when our rules and our policies need to be waived based on circumstances they might not have considered.

What’s your customer-service goal? Are there any numbers you tend to fixate on?

I fixate on all of the numbers. For example, we’re number one in baggage, meaning we have the fewest DOT complaints. And we’ve been as high as number two on our disability numbers. We’re fixated on being number one for our customers.

There’s a perception among air travelers that things are being taken away from customers in the back of the plane and given to the folks up front and your elites. Is that a fair perception?

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Well, we have elites in the back, too.

Of course.

From a business perspective, clearly the people who are spending the most revenue with you — they deserve to have some perks. So yes. And you know what those perks are.

But as I look at it from a reservations perspective, yes, we answer their phones quicker, they have a dedicated group. But at the same time, we’ve done a lot to support our essential customers, too.

Prioritizing service

The situational flexibility you referred to, that applies to both elites and non-elites?

We don’t draw a distinction. There may be more things we can do for an elite, in terms of service recovery, but we treat them the same.

You’re referring to leisure travelers as “essential” customers? That’s interesting.

We are. Because they are. They are essential customers.

Essential, but infrequent.

We understand that. We have another service recovery program called Delta Choices. Let’s say we just canceled your flight, and you can’t get to your honeymoon, or wherever you need to go. If you only fly on Delta once a year, a voucher is not a valuable means of service recovery.

We now offer any number of gift certificates — from Amazon, Nike, Marriott, Home Depot — that you can choose from.

That’s been well-received. So far, 90 percent of our customers accept it. It’s right on the money.

Listening to passengers

What else do customers complain to you about?

Well, seat changes. To solve for these issues, we have just introduced new technology to ensure like-to-like seating in the event of an aircraft equipment change or cancellation.

Look, I talk to a lot of air travelers, and they tell me air travel — at least in the back of the plane — is a slog. A lot of them remember what it was like to fly years ago, when we still had stewardesses and lots of legroom in the back of the plane and meals that were served on China. Don’t you hear that, too? Tell me I’m out of touch.

You’re out of touch.

Oh, thanks.

From a product perspective, what we hear are things like, “The in-flight entertainment didn’t work.” Or, there was an equipment change and I ended up with a seat I didn’t want. But not the, “I’m in a cattle car.” We don’t get that.

How do you get better service from an airline like Delta?

I honestly think we’re getting better and better every day. We’ve made it as easy as possible for people to tell us when something is wrong.

In 240 airports this year, we’ve expanded our “need help” posters to provide a quick way to get assistance. On the website, we now have a “comments and complaints” section. We’re calling customers who give us a low rating on surveys. We’re asking for more detail about that, about the reason for their disappointment. We highly value a customer who takes the time to sit down and give us their feedback.

Customer feedback is what’s going to make the service better.

Customer service as a priority

Do you have support from Richard Anderson [Delta’s CEO].

I meet with Richard and the corporate leadership team once a month. I’ll show you something.

[She pulls out a file.]

I go in once a month, and I go over the DOT numbers. And I go through page by page to tell him what we’re doing to solve our customers pain pointsthat.

What does he say?

He’s proud of the progress. He’s interested in the actions that we’re taking. He has specific questions. They get in the weeds and it helps me gain support to drive improvements.

When did you start meeting with him?

We began in 2010. So we all now have a laser-like focus on service.

Does good customer service translate into higher shareholder value?

Absolutely. It’s always hard to put a dollar figure on better customer service. When you’re in any service industry, it’s hard to do that.

Better service, better product, it takes all of that. I think that translates into customer retention, which translates into higher revenue.

Clearly, we’re running a much better operation. Our numbers are climbing. They’re not where we want them to be yet.

The message is very clear at Delta: customer service is essential to the bottom line. The entire company is behind it.

Looking forward

I probably won’t see you for another two years. So what should I be asking about when we meet up again in 2015?

We have a rebooking engine launching early next year. The new system will be very creative. Our ultimate goal — and this is a two-year technology deliverable — is that we can send a rebooking option to any device you choose. (Here’s our guide to resolving your consumer problem.)

So when there’s an IROP [irregular operation, or flight delay] the message will say, “Chris, I’m sorry for the delay. Push one to be rebooked on this flight, push two for a refund, or push three for another option.” The res agent will have that same technology, and will. It’ll be great for the customer.

We’re aligned with you, and what you do for the customer. That’s the role that my team plays every day. We’re going to get better and better.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. He is based in Panamá City.

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