Recently Delta Air Lines announced it was sending thousands of its front-line people -- 11,000, in fact -- to charm school. Every counter, gate, baggage agent and supervisor is going back to school to learn how to be polite.
The clear implication, of course, is that the front-line ticket counter and gate agents for Delta are to blame for the airline's absymal record.
- Delta had the highest number of customer complaints filed with the U.S. Department of Transportation in the first nine months of 2010.
- The airline also suffered with bad results in on-time arrivals (second to last) and baggage handling was abysmal.
- Delta also had the most number of canceled flights in 2010 among the major legacy carriers.
It is a typical response of big corporations when they get bad marks for customer service: blame the front line and the people who have the most public contact. But what about an examination of the age-old argument that in the end, the fish stinks from the head?
What management should change
If Delta doesn't change its checked bag policies, and its change-fee policies, and its ticket penalty policies, no amount of pleases and thank yous will make much of a difference.
Charm has nothing to do with on-time performance or baggage handling. There's nothing remotely polite about getting a bag onto a plane -- and then off of one.
So the airline is investing millions of dollars in this particular form of recurrent training. But what could the results possibly be?
Are they now going to disappoint me at a ticket counter with an earnest "thank you?"
What's the point of charm school if the very policies the airline IS asking its agents to impose and enforce are still draconian? What difference will it make if you continue to treat people badly, but with manners?
The Truth Behind the Counter
Ticket counter and gate agents have a tough job. A very tough job. That burden is compounded by the task they are asked to accomplish with every new passenger. By the time most passengers get to a ticket counter or gate, there's a high likelihood these passengers have already been abused at least two times (by airports or other airline policies).
By the time they get to the counter or gate, that agent has definitely been abused by other passengers, and by their company itself, who gives these agents no flexibility whatsoever to have any discretionary decision making ability.
The airline makes it very clear to these people: there are rules, and you cannot violate them because to do so is risking losing your job.
So it is inevitable that, charm school or not, the situation is less than charming.
I'm all in favor of people being nice. But I'm an even bigger fan of common sense and clarity. Embrace intelligence, embrace your customers with the notion that, more often than not, they have problems that you can actually solve if your company gives you the freedom to be nice AND intelligent.
So here is my individual please and thank you regarding this issue: Please, being charming without portfolio just doesn't cut it. Give your agents the ability, and the trust, to think on their own and provide positive customer service that resonates with long-term good will.
What do you think is more important in customer service? Good manners, or the ability to solve problems?
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