Customers are Won and Lost One at a Time

Frequent flyers tell great stories about being thanked for their business. Maybe the captain came out and gave her business card to the top elites in the cabin, or a flight attendant brought you a drink and thanked you for your loyalty. That never happens to me.

I’ve been acknowledged as a frequent customer maybe once on American Airlines, and I don’t think ever before that. Maybe I just don’t come off as sufficiently approachable, my head buried in my laptop.

Nick shares a story about his experience with Delta that reminded me of a very important lesson. Business is won or lost one customer at a time. That’s true even for the largest of businesses.

Nick tells me he’s been an American Airlines Executive Platinum since 1997. A year ago he “had one too many issues” with American and asked Delta to match his status. That was a huge step for someone like him who lives in Charlotte, an American Airlines hub.

Delta generally will offer status challenges up to Platinum, so it took until a month ago before Nick earned Diamond status. Fast forward to two weeks ago,

I am a consultant so I have a number of clients I visit. About two weeks ago I got a call from my boss that Delta airlines is now in my portfolio and I should go and visit them. I flew to Atlanta and went to Delta headquarters.

As I was sitting in the waiting area for my meeting with one of the Senior Vice Presidents at Delta, every time someone would walk by me they would stop and thank me. I was very confused by this since as a consultant you are never treated that way.

After the 5th person walking by thanked me I could not hold my curiosity any longer and asked her why she was thanking me. She pointed to my bag with the Diamond tag and said you are one of our most valuable customers and thank you for flying with Delta and trusting us!..[T]his was in their corp office which is not a customer servicing area.

You’d think that an airline like Delta has so many customers, how can a single interaction with one of them matter for the bottom line?

But you have to remember that Delta has over 80,000 employees. Not every one of them interfaces with customers, although most things that nearly every one of them does has an effect on customers. And employees are in contact throughout their days, each and every hour they’re at work, in some cases as many as 250 days a year.

Large companies can easily forget the way one customer matters, but large companies also have scale so each person dealing with a customer multiplies itself thousands of times, and thousands of times over again.

Saying thank you is an easy gesture but it points to an important mindset, putting the customer at the center of everything.

An airline should think about how their processes will affect the customer, not just the operation. Can we hold a flight without hurting more customers? Are we communicating delays as early as we know them so customers can stay working or relaxing in the club instead of heading to the gate unnecessarily? Are flights being timed to maximize aircraft usage, or to get people where they want to go when they want to go there?

In some ways it’s even more important for executives to have this mindset than frontline employees. Their decisions are going to affect many more instances of single customer interactions, and they’re going to be examples that frontline employees model. It’s great to hear that for this one customer, he felt appreciated. And that’s solidified his decision to move his business (even before getting the airline as a client).

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I acquired JetBlue Mosaic status via credit card spend late last year. I find that on nearly every JetBlue flight that i’ve taken as Mosaic the gate agents and the FAs thank me for my loyalty and most of them actually seem like they mean it. I expect the Mosaic desk to treat me a certain way, but it is interesting to see how the rank and file front-line employees are on-board with customer recognition.

    TrueBlue is not the best program out there, but they’re getting this bit right.

  2. I attempted to fly to Bermuda on AA in July. AA misconnected me in MIA (with a 3.5 hour scheduled layover!) The next. flight was 24 hours later rendering my journey pointless. I documented the misconnect in my PNR as a “trip in vain” with AA at the airport. My one-way fare was $174. AA refunded $76 of the $174 fare. I have spent more time than its worth arguing with AA over the refund amount due to me. Have not flown on AA since despite flying ~150,000 a year. (free agent).

    Who do you think I’m going to select for my next flights? Hint: Not AA.

  3. @ Gary — Told you. You should really try being a Diamond on Delta. Of course it isn’t perfect, but they treat us very well (while picking our pockets through devaluations – I will never forgive them for this).

  4. I can confirm that this is part of Delta’s culture, even in the corporate offices. I visited their in-flight training center a couple of months ago, and one of the surprising things was that, as part of the training, all the FA trainees were greeting non-Delta visitors as we walked by.

  5. On a recent trip on DL flying DTW-FRA, the Captain came out of the cockpit and into the Delta One section where we were seated and thanked us all as a group for flying Delta. It was a great gesture, didn’t take a lot of time, and was something memorable because it’s not something done usually at most airlines.

  6. About 3 years ago, the captain on one of my United flights introduced himself in person before the flight and shook hands, talked about the flight and the aircraft. It was a very unique event that hadn’t happened to me before and hasn’t happened since. At that time, I didn’t have status on any airline and it was very nice to be acknowledged and spoken to in that manner.

  7. As a 75k Gold on Alaska, I am thanked by most customer service personnel I have talked to by phone or met in person. It’s very impressive compared to when I was a Plat Exec with AA. When I finally gave up on AA, they never bothered to inquire why I went from top status to no status. Admittedly, I am no longer an AA fan, but in all fairness, my last two flights on AA in first had amazing flight attendants. At my seat was a thank you note when I boarded the first flight. I received pre-flight drinks in both, and never had an empty cup throughout the flights. In fact, they were so impressive that my husband has written a letter to commend both FAs.

  8. I got into an argument with an AA pilot who used mine (1A) and the business class seat behind mine (2A) overhead (1A is already cramped due to non-center seat storage) on a 787 PEKORD. When I asked him if he could move his luggage, he asked me, “Are we going to have a problem?”

    I live in Dallas and I switched to UA. Hit Premier 1K, and happy to change planes where I need to. An hour layover is better than 14 hour miserable flights, every day.

  9. Customers ARE won and lost, one at a time. This happened two weeks ago…

    My sister-in-law, her husband and their daughter — all very infrequent fliers — are meeting me and the husband in San Juan for a cruise; travel is during the holidays, so reasonable fares are scarce. I found an ALB-SJU outbound flight for them for $206 pp on United and urged them to grab it, and they did. The flight landed SJU at 1pm, allowing them a full 24 hours before boarding the ship, so it was all ideal. Flights home were starting around $400, so we held off booking that, hoping for another great deal.

    A few weeks after ticketing United had a schedule change and their 6:30am departure from ALB no longer connects to United’s morning flight out of EWR. They were rebooked on a 5:30pm flight and now were now scheduled to land SJU at 1:00am. Out of ALB, there was no other UA routing for them, which meant losing all of their first day of vacation.

    When I called United to complain the agent (Philippines) said they would refund the ticket so they could buy on another carrier. I told her that was unacceptable, because the cheapest fare on other carriers was now $376 pp, up by about $100 from when the ticket was originally purchased. I asked for them to compensate to buy the more expensive ticket on other carriers — no deal.

    I explained the situation to sister-in-law and she says let me call them. I told her, without status (she’s not even a MileagePlus member) she’s unlikely to receive more than a refund. But she gets someone at United reservations, based in Mexico City incidentally, who says, “I can’t buy your tickets on another carrier, but I’d like to try and make this better.” He ends up exchanging all three tickets for her on a perfectly-timed return flight, the fares for which were running above $500. He did not charge any additional beyond the $206 they originally paid.

    I was very impressed by this simple, elegant solution. By acknowledging the problem they created and identifying a creative fix, United won several happy customers.

  10. This is a fantastic experience to read about. It’s a massive company and yet the focus is on the customer, at all levels. They know to look for clues such as the ID tag. If Chick-Fil-A and In-n-Out can script teenagers to perfectly greet customers, then any company should be able to do the same.

    Unfortunately this whole story as an example of employee engagement is far out of AA leadership realm. They may come up with a new idea on this, get embroidered polos for the facilitators, spend a lot of money bringing everyone in for training and a year later nothing has changed.

  11. My partner and I are hardly high level elite flyers with both of us having just “lowly” Silver Medallion “status” on Delta (my partner almost reached Gold last year as he usually flies more than I do) but both of us were surprised on a Delta flight back in April from LaGuardia to West Palm Beach when the flight attendants came through the entire cabin delivering personally addressed, hand written “Thank You” notes!

    For sure, that’s never happened to either of us before; so that definitely got our attention in the pleasant sort of way.

    Yeah, I suppose on the one hand, some negative nellies and hard-boiled cynics might “pooh-pooh” that as getting off cheap in an era of successive ‘SkyPeso’ devaluations.

    But, we still remember that as standing out from our experiences on other airlines, and we thought it was a nice touch.

    Plus, there have been several other positive things done by Delta that sets the airline apart from our other experiences this year, including:

    – usually reading & replying to tweets and/or DMs promptly (and on the 1 or 2 times when they were slower than they usually are, NOT having an attitude if I’ve called them out in a tweet for not replying promptly on being “less Delta-y” than they usually are)

    And not only that, but actually reading tweets and DMs in their entirety (and as readers here know, sometimes I can be *VERY* wordy… 😉 ) as the replies I’ve received have more than make clear they’ve read what was expressed!

    Even more noteworthy, when we boarded a flight at JFK back in May and found that our relatively new Airbus A321 was NOT cleaned (it was littered with papers and snack food crumbs, and the sidewalls were pretty dirty, too), Delta definitely paid attention to the tweets and pics made before the plane took off at JFK, because there was an ARMY of cleaners who boarded in Orlando while we were waiting for my partner’s wheelchair to arrive.

    Lastly, and to me perhaps the most impactful thing done by Delta that for sure was far beyond anything seen done by other airlines in recent memory happened in late July when a friend, who was booked on JetBlue to visit a terminally ill sibling (who has since passed away) arrived at JFK Airport to find out their flight was canceled while they were en route to JFK, and that airline rebooked them on a flight to the least desirable and furthest away airport from their intended destination in the area instead of the main airport in the area that was 20 miles (or more) closer to where they were going, and even after JetBlue was informed that the passenger was traveling to say goodbye to their sibling; does NOT own a car; and would NOT be able to rent a car to get from the most remote airport in the area to where they needed to be in a city they have little familiarity with.

    To say that JetBlue’s handling of this situation was a big disappointment is vastly understating the situation that afternoon.

    Especially when considering that his fare was hardly the cheapest available to begin with as he paid the highest non-refundable fare, “Blue Flex” AND “Even More Space” seats at more than $100 each way.

    Yet, despite all that, JetBlue refused to change him to one of its other flights to the much closer to his destination airport on the same day; and said he’d have to go back home and come back for a flight at sunrise the next day if he wanted to go to the airport nearest where he needed to be – all at his own trouble and expense.

    Enter Delta: I reached out to the airline, explained the situation, provided the same documentation to them as I did to JetBlue of the sibling’s terminal illness, and they literally did everything and more to get my friend to the nearer airport the same day.

    And they bent over backwards to help make an already difficult and stressful situation where my friend was already overwhelmed with grief by working with me so that the new reservation on Delta was all tees up for them to simply present their photo ID and credit card, and be on their way to the gate instead of having to try and rebook things on their own when they were in the type of emotional state that anyone who has taken a trip to see a loved one in their final days and hours knows is indescribably difficult when everything is going well, let alone if their flight is abruptly canceled and the airline leaves them in the lurch as JetBlue pretty much did that day.

    Yet Delta was incredible. And as if they hadn’t already done enough by taking on a passenger abandoned by a rival airline, the agent provided instructions on how he could file for Delta’s 10% discount after returning from his trip – which they ended up refunding even more than 10% when the amount refunded turned out to be the difference in fare between main cabin and Comfort+.

    And my friend is hardly a frequent flyer.

    Yet, Delta really went the distance and then some in a difficult time for my friend, who since then has told a great many others about how well Delta (and I) came through for them after JetBlue canceled their flight for one of the hardest trips they’ve ever taken in their life.

    Now, of course I can’t possibly say if everyone else’s experience with Delta will match that incredible-ness, but as someone who most regular readers here (and elsewhere) knows full well I’m often very critical of how badly most flyers (especially those in economy class) are treated by our airlines, this is exactly how things went down that day.

    And Delta was nothing short of spectacular.

    And I, and my friend especially, will never forget that.

    So yes, Delta’s more personal touch very much matters.

    Delta was also incredible to work with when a family member had life saving surgery that required multiple trips last year.

    So, that’s why most of our trips are booked on Delta – because the airline is willing to work proactively in special situations when others won’t.

    And NOTHING has been received or proffered by Delta for anything said here.


    And I do NOT own any stocks or other investment instruments (long or short; debt; options; etc.) with Delta – or any other airline/aircraft manufacturer – just to be clear that there are NO financial considerations whatsoever.

  12. Now, if only Delta didn’t pack flyers into sub 32” pitch rows, then we’d really be delirious with joy, as our flight last week in a 31.5” pitch main cabin row from LAX to JFK was VERY unpleasant for my partner who has reduced mobility, and as noted in reader comments for a separate VFTW post earlier today, that row pitch was hell for my partner, who as noted there, had Polio as a young age, and even at 5’4” suffered multiple bouts of severe cramping and intense pain on that trans-con flight stuck in a 31.5” pitch row.

    But hey, that flight still doesn’t take away from the above “rave review” for Delta.

    But that miserly row pitch IS miserable!

    Yowza! Were we ever reminded about that last week, even if it was our “fault” for choosing the earlier flight where C+ was sold out instead of the later flight where it was still available until just a few days’ before our return from LAX.

  13. IRROPS are where customers are won or lost.

    That being said, to paraphrase my boss, would you rather earn miles that are worth 2x more than the competing product or a “thank you” and a smile? For many years now UA has had an edge because one could redeem Mileage Plus miles for TATL and TPAC business class travel at half the price charged by DL. So DL had to compete with better service and attitude. Will be interesting to see if the attitude changes at UA following the devaluation of its program. It is easy to change award charts – it is harder to change culture and attain operational excellence.

  14. What won me over to Delta was a business trip to Lexington, KY from Orlando. I had to be in a hearing in federal court in Lexington the following morning at 9:00 am. Irrops in Atlanta due to weather left me with 6 minutes to make the connection between the ends of two ATL concourses, and no later flights that day.

    I told the GA about my predicament. She said she would get me “a widget”, and took me down the jetway stairs. A car came up on the tarmac, the driver found my bag coming down the baggage unloaded, and my bag and I went across directly to the jetway stairs of the connecting flight to Lexington.

    Since then, I’ve become a Delta Million Miler. That GA and Delta made me a loyal Delta flyer – by treating my business as valuable.

  15. Although I have provided snippets here over past 2 months of my walking out of AA in favor of DL, the truth is in the details.

    My first flight on DL was in First between ORD-LGA in August on a B-717 I believe DL acquired used, but you would never know, as the plane was clean, F seat very comfortable, lights, etc in working order, and bathroom clean vs. AA’s Oasis program.

    Instead of picking just water or OJ from the tray upon boarding when so infrequently offered by AA , imagine my shock when offered a cocktail, or whatever, on DL. When the FA expressed a sincere apology for the lack of limes on flight to LGA, I told her not to worry, for if this was AA, I would be told how they did not have the vodka! As DL FAs currently are non-union, I wonder if this explains the consistency of offering drinks in F upon boarding at DL? Are the DL FAs not “on the clock” until the door is closed and locked like union FAs?

    My last F meal on AA was after a dinner flight from SAN-ORD was classified as lunch serving a bare bones “Vietnamese Chicken Salad” where the meat would perhaps fit into a straw. However, on DL, it was a no nonsense approach to lunch: salad, entree, dessert; open bar all the way. My only thought would be for DL to avoid the heated sandwiches which are not as solid as a cold sandwich. The cold chicken on return was fine. Amazing how I had a more thorough meal and unlimited open bar far better on DL ORD-LGA vs. AA SAN-ORD or ORD-LGA.

    Although I burnt off my 900,000 miles but still a permanent Gold nearing Executive on AA, DL immediately matched my current classification. When I have to go to the West Coast, I do not care if DL does not offer non-stops from ORD. Why would I accept a lower standard of quality over time, especially as I pay my own way these days?

    Also, I found very interesting how DL generates a thorough questionnaire after each flight, and when communicating by phone.

    Oh yes, upon arrival at LGA, the pilot was there to say good-bye and thank the flyers.

  16. I guess it’s all in the timing. In 2011, Delta issued me a boarding pass for my wife and I that put me in coach seats on our flight to Hawaii. Problem was I had purchased first class seats! They never said a word to me about the change. It was perhaps a half an hour of sitting at the gate that I noticed where we had been placed. The agent at the boarding gate did not apologize but did offer us seats that the flight attendants sit in while taking off and landing. I declined and it was at this point she apologized and said there was nothing they could do. I went to a public phone, nearby, to speak to my travel agent, when I was approached by a Delta employee who said they could put us on an American flight that had space in first class. We accepted, but the American gate location made for a harrowing dash to be able to catch that flight. When we returned from our vacation, I wrote Delta about the incident. Their offer to resolve the matter was for a paltry amount of miles. I told them their lack of concern on that day was enough to make me not want to fly their airline again, so the miles meant nothing. They felt since I did fly first class on the American flight that their offer was sufficient.The correspondence went back and forth until the Delta agent told me they would not be able to satisfy me and the matter was closed. Their compensation offer never changed from the original miles offer. I have never flown them since. They definetly made that day extra difficult and it could have been easier if they had told me the seating status had check in. They lost me as a customer that day.

  17. I too am a dedicated Delta passenger (former AA devotee out of DFW). Also due to one encounter with one stewardess (so far back they were not even called Flight Attendants yet). I was on the end of a very hard ten day business trip, exhausted, and had been rebooked on a Delta flight the following day. She took one look at me and started with a joke that acknowledge my state of misery, then gave me extra special attention throughout the flight. In in those days, service was mostly reserved for male flyers. I felt so much better and promised that I would write a “sunshine” letter to her supervisor. She denied she had sone anything special (!). I ended up tracking her supervisor down and promised to fly Delta from there on out. I did and have ever since. Better yet, I was hired by a company where I booked all the flights for both executives and service personnel, so Delta got millions and millions of flyer miles!
    BTW I wandered around the Cincinnati airport with a heavy suitcase in tow. The lockers required $2 in change, which I didn’t have and nothing was open. A Delta employee, whom I approached, gave it to me. I tried to get a business card to send him a check. “no” he said “I see you fly Delta, my pleasure!” And so it goes, the little kindnesses make the difference.

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