Delta’s Ausband: When it comes to customer service, “we want to be even better”

Allison Ausband/Delta Air Lines

Allison Ausband is Delta Air Lines’ vice president for reservation sales and customer care. I met with her last week to discuss the progress since our last interview in 2010.

It’s nice to see you again. And you’re still here. Before you came along, this position was like watching a game of musical chairs. (Here’s my 2009 interview with Ausband’s predecessor.)

Thank you. I liken it to solving world peace on some days. I try to fix everything. But I’ve never been more excited about our momentum.

Let me start by asking you about some of the numbers reported to the Department of Transportation, like customer complaints. They’re much improved. What happened?

We were sitting on the bottom when I saw you two years ago. We were in ninth place. We have been on a mission with regard to our DOT complaints. We’ve put into place over 250 different service initiatives.

Like what?

I’ll give you a few examples. Flight problems — that’s our largest complaint category. We’re now giving more timely communication to our customers and being more transparent. One initiative that we’ve just started is that our captains go out and make announcements when there’s a lengthy delay.

Another issue was economy comfort seating on the 757. We had two seats that were not meeting our customer’s expectations, and we decided to take them out of inventory.

We track our customers, and when someone’s schedule has been changed three times or more, we will call them to find out if everything is OK.

Do your internal metrics reflect the reduction in DOT complaints?

From a reservations perspective, one number we had talked about the last time I saw you was average speed to answer. We know that’s a pain point. It’s decreased 17 percent over the last two years.

We don’t give people a busy signal when they call. We have introduced something we call virtual hold, and at the four-minute mark, we give you the option of calling you back. We’ve saved our customers over 123 years of hold time with virtual hold.

We want to get our numbers even better. Next year, in the second quarter, we’re launching a natural-language IVR [Interactive Voice Response] system. You can tell it what you want and it’ll route you to the right place.

Last time I saw you, we had some new government regulations on the horizon. They’re now in place. Which of the new rules have benefited your customers the most?

The one on baggage fees, definitely. We were already in line with the rules when they came out, so we were in a great place.

You know baggage fees are so complex. Our network is huge, and we have partners. We now have better technology to calculate the baggage fees and there’s transparency on the receipt. In the first quarter of next year, you’ll see full disclosure of those fees.

You recently changed your baggage interlining policy, so luggage isn’t automatically transferred when a customer is traveling on another airline using two tickets. Have you had any complaints about that?

No, that issue hasn’t popped up.

What about ancillary fees? Those are a source of frustration for a lot of airline passengers.

On Delta.com, we’re in a great place, when it comes to ancillary fees. The information is there, it’s transparent. We have to partner with the DOT, to make sure it’s consistent. We want to work in partnership to make our fares fully transparent.

What do your passengers want to see?

I think what they see on their printed itinerary today is tremendous progress. It’s full disclosure. They get a breakdown. In the past, ancillary fees were new to us, and customers didn’t have that. We’re doing a much better job today.

We just need to continue to get better.

In the second part of our interview, we’ll discover what happened to First Point of Contact and what Delta’s customer care will do in two years. Tune in for part two tomorrow.

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