How to Turn an Airline Flight Delay into Customer Loyalty

The Joy of Flying
By Neil Baron, originally published on PragmaticMarketing.com

Seven best practices for service recovery

Each time a flight is cancelled, it’s an opportunity to irritate 300 captive customers–but it’s also a chance to turn them into understanding, passionate loyalists and recommenders.

A couple of months ago, I was on the wrong side of that equation as I journeyed back from Israel on a Delta flight. If you’ve ever flown, you’ve been through this scenario: problems with the plane, not enough information, confusing announcements and hours of waiting—resulting in a cancelled flight and an unplanned overnight stay. Even though it was paid for by Delta, they lost an opportunity to do it right.

Any unpleasant experience is a moment of truth for customer loyalty, and many companies (not just the airlines) blow it. But if a company can perform well during these moments of truth, they will keep their customers and enhance customer loyalty.

It’s called “service recovery,” but companies often fail to put in the time and effort required to define and execute their service recovery plans.

So why don’t more companies do this? I pondered that question with my colleague and fellow services expert Ron Kaufman, author of “Uplifting Service” (Evolve Publishing Inc., May 2012) who works with top rated organizations such as Singapore Airlines and Singapore’s Changi Airport. We defined these seven service-recovery best practices.

1. Develop a service recovery plan. Understand how you will respond when something goes awry. Delta personnel acted as if a flight cancellation due to mechanical problems had never happened before.

In contrast, Singapore Airlines handles these situations quite differently. When they have an aircraft on the ground, it is a signal for people to swing into action. Employees at all levels rush to assist travelers inconvenienced by the delay. Singapore Airlines views these situations as opportunities to shine.

2. Show you care.
Empathize with the customers’ problem and say you are sorry for the pain that your company caused. Other than the robotic announcement of the flight cancellation, Delta never apologized for the situation. There is no cost for saying, “We sincerely apologize for this inconvenience.”

3. Fix the problem quickly.
Once the flight was cancelled, the busses should have been alerted and hotel reservations made. Delta personnel should have been strategically located throughout the airport to explain what was happening, answer questions and tell us where we should go next. When delays occur at Changi Airport, both airport and airline personnel work in close harmony to ensure passengers are kept well informed and up to date.

4. Overcommunicate. Delta also never communicated beyond the on-board announcement. They should have provided regular updates on everything from the location of the luggage pick-up carousel to the estimated time of arrival for the bus. The Singapore Airlines standard is providing passengers with an accurate update every 15 minutes.

5. Provide an unexpected bonus to the customer and tell them why you are doing it.
Offer something meaningful as a salve for their pain. This is a great opportunity to provide an unexpected little extra such as a voucher for a discount on the passenger’s next flight, but it also is important to explain why to convey the empathy mentioned in best practice #2.

6. Extend the impact. Don’t stop working to win back the customers’ loyalty just because they stop complaining or they were placed on the next flight. A few weeks after the problem, you have another opportunity to delight customers with a small gesture that shows you care. Even an email or phone call can make a world of difference in the lasting impression that the person has of your company.

7. Drive improvements. You should constantly think about improvements to processes and procedures. This clearly wasn’t Delta’s first canceled flight, but based on their actions, it was apparent that Delta never institutionalized process improvements or gave much thought to service recovery. They could benefit from an analysis of lessons from the cancellation of flight 469. And it wouldn’t hurt to call a few customers to get their perspective.

Stuff goes wrong; that’s just a part of life.
But if your company makes the effort to recover the situation, customers love to forgive. When something goes wrong and can lead to customers having an unpleasant experience, just think about how you would want to be treated and act accordingly. Are you communicating everything they need to know? And are you empathizing enough? By adding a bit of positive in with the negative, you actually can use the situation to turn your company into a hero and maintain the loyalty of those customers.