Can You Get Good Service From a "Bad" Company?

Last Updated Jun 24, 2011 7:58 AM EDT

After Delta Air Lines' dismal performance in the latest American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI), many readers have asked me if every flying experience on the nation's second-largest airline will be predictably bad every time.

Delta scored a 56 out of 100, down nearly 10 percent from last year, due largely to problems with its recent merger with Northwest Airlines.

The answer applies to customer service across all industries, whether they're monitored by the ACSI or not.

And that is: not necessarily.

Take Jim Davies, who works for a healthcare provider in Lake Forest, Ill. He was recently scheduled to fly from Harrisburg, Pa., to Raleigh, NC, via Atlanta on Delta. But his 8 a.m. flight was canceled, and the airline automatically rescheduled him on a 4:40 p.m. flight.

That didn't work for Davies.

"Since the late arrival would severely impact my plans, I called Delta to check on options," he says. "At first, the agent was unwilling to discuss other airlines. She said, 'Looks like everything is booked.'"

Davies asked the agent consider switching him to another airline, and he ended up flying to Raleigh on US Airways.

End of story? Not quite.

Since Davies is a frequent flier on Delta, he had pack one bag â€" for which Delta wouldn't have charged him. But US Airways asked him to pay $25 for the bag, since he didn't have elite-level status through on the airline.

That didn't seem fair to Davies. So he sent the airline a brief, polite email, mentioning the problem.

"Within 12 hours I received a response. It contained an apology for the agent, an approval of the $25 reimbursement, and a $100 voucher for the trouble the cancellation caused," he says. "Delta's response was quick, satisfactory, and a clear indication that they are trying."

I agree. I've had several Delta flights in the recent past, and all have been perfectly acceptable, so I wouldn't have given the airline an "F" as a customer, either.

I have, however, had an opportunity to talk with Delta insiders about their customer-service initiatives, and like Davies, I know they're trying.

But back to the question: Can a "bad" company offer good service? Yes, it can. Davies case offers a few lessons.

Loyalty matters. Being a loyal customer can make a significant difference in how a company serves you. I'm willing to bet Delta would have been more reluctant to transfer Davies ticket and to compensate him generously after his flight, had he not been an elite-level flier.

Politeness can overcome bad service. Good manners are every customer's secret weapon. Both of Davies inquiries were cordial â€" he never demanded better service or threatened the company. That makes a big difference.

So do reasonable expectations. Davies could have insisted Delta offer him a voucher for a ticket (an unreasonable request) or an upgrade on his next flight (probably unreasonable, too). Instead, he expected nothing more than an apology, and was surprised when he got more.

I believe these principles apply to virtually every business. Show them you're an important customer, be polite and keep your expectations reasonable, and you can get good service from any company.

Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate, syndicated columnist and curator of the On Your Side wiki. He also covers customer service for the Mint.com blog. You can follow Elliott on Twitter, Facebook or his personal blog, Elliott.org or email him directly.
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Photo: Pylon757/Flickr
  • Christopher Elliott

    Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate and journalist. A columnist for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the Washington Post, Elliott also has a nationally syndicated column and blogs about customer service for the Mint.com. He is at work on a book about customer service issues.

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