DeltaFAIL? You decide…

Delta Airlines has a PR nightmare on its hands – or, is it an opportunity?

Here’s the deal – some soldiers returning from Afghanistan put up this video on YouTube (please watch) complaining about the fact that they had to pay, out-of-pocket, for a fourth piece of luggage. They had been operating under the impression that they were allowed 4 pieces of baggage.

Delta put up this apologetic response on their blog, which outlines the fact that soldiers traveling coach class are actually allowed three bags (first/business class allows four).

Military people know that you have to do things “by the book” as you do your job. And Delta employee(s) were apparently doing just that – following the rules. Clearly, we have a case of miscommunication – and maybe a policy in need of review – that has blown up and is creating a strong emotional response.

So, here’s the question – what do you think Delta Airlines should do – right now for these soldiers, this week for PR damage control, and long-term regarding their luggage policy for the military? Put your thoughts in the comments and let’s discuss.

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Steve Woodruff is a blogger, a Connection Agent, and a consultant in the pharma/healthcare industry. He specializes in helping people and companies make mutually beneficial connections.

16 Responses to DeltaFAIL? You decide…

  1. Jim Joseph says:

    OMG – without question, refund! And all service people returning from service should get all bags free and drinks too for that matter!

  2. Delta Airlines needs to donate 10*$2800 = $28,000 to a non profit organization that is specifically devoted to serving the needs of military service men and women who have returned from war. It could be tending to their mental health needs, it could be helping them find employment — whatever!

    This is a case of leadership failure where employees simply are not given the authority to say anything other than, “I’m sorry sir, I feel your anger and pain, but you still can’t take those bags on without paying $200/bag, because this is all I’m authorized/allowed to say.”

    [By the way, companies: by training your customer facing personnel to say "I am sorry / I feel your pain", you still don't make customers feel less angry or agitated. How about give your personnel more decision making authority instead? If you honestly believe the people you hire are incapable of good discernment and thus cannot be trusted to have decision authority, then hire better people or keep good people on longer.]

    1 bag: $200.
    Delta made: $2800
    Cost of PR Damage to Delta: Priceless.

  3. Erica Cenci says:

    I’d say that they need to review their policy and let the public know that they are doing so. It can take a while for a policy change in a company of Delta’s size to get approved and implemented, but they should take this as an opportunity to review and update it. Also, the more transparent they can be with the public in the process, the better. They shouldn’t make military pay for their bags when on orders (or ever, really). I wonder if their employees have to pay for their bags when traveling for business, or even at all? Seems like something is backward.

  4. Steve Hayes says:

    I’m in 100% agreement with Jim’s comment. Free baggages and drinks for returning military. If an airline did that, I would choose that airline whenever I had a choice.

  5. Kevin Dugan says:

    Pete Blackshaw (now with Nestle) has been talking about the need for customer service to be aligned with social media efforts by companies for years. Jet Blue is a stand out in using social media to spot customer service issues, including being stranded on the tarmac. Zappos chose to focus almost solely on customer service as it’s social media platform. Best Buy’s TwelpForce, the list goes on. But not much longer.

    Delta could have skated this, hopefully, if customer service was a higher priority and as a result it was considering social media as part of its efforts.

    Blackshaw recommends appending customer profiles with social information. Thereby they would know that while Joe Smith is not a big customer for Delta, Joe posts to three blogs and has an strong Twitter presence. So, while it’s not in their financial best interest to do anything for Joe, if he’s pissed it would make more sense to escalate the issue than if financial was the only weight used to asses the priority.

    You could easily argue that this is a no-brainer PR opportunity for Delta. They screwed the pooch, but it’s because of the misalignment of customer service with marketing, including social media and PR. Their customer service folks clearly are not empowered to do much other than follow a policy/script.

  6. amyfitch1218 says:

    Here’s what I think, and maybe I’m more sensitive this than other people since my Dad is both a Veteran and a Million Mile + Plantium flyer on Delta Airlines (so I’ve seen them pull some incredible strings): Fly each of those soldiers and their families to a Delta-serviced destination for an all-expense-paid vacation. Then, they should make an immediate company-wide directive giving military members flying with orders the same number of “free” bags as the first class flyers. But hey, what do I know?

  7. Tom Martin says:

    I’m going to play devils advocate.

    First, the math’s all wrong here… $200 a piece (at 34 soldiers in the group) is over $6,800 not $2,800 as the soldier in the video states. Second, none of us know what the military travel policy is or is not — except what the soldier in the video states. These are both important points because they go to the heart of the matter — who really screwed up here… Delta or the US Military.

    Delta has quickly responded, though interestingly, they do not specifically post the military contract/language the soldiers reference — which if Delta is correct in it’s stance (we say soldiers can have 3 not 4 bags in coach) — would seem to be a no brainer PR move. It would immediately place the blame for the situation on the US Military Command as opposed to Delta and one of its employees.

    So I think Steve’s right – what we have here is a miscommunication. A miscommunication that is now emotionally charged because the consumers in question were soldiers returning from war. Further, they sought to amp up the emotion by claiming the fourth bag contained the weapons they used to defend themselves and Afgan citizens. That’s not entirely true. They had 4 bags… only one was charged. The soldiers elected to say that the bag containing their weapons was the “charged” bag, but Delta could just as easily claim it was any of their other bags. The soldiers surely planned to add the element of emotion by citing the weapons bag. Smart ploy on their part no doubt… but let’s see it for what it is — an emotional ploy not necessarily a pure fact.

    So that means, the question is, who is responsible for the miscommunication. Was it the military command or Delta? That answer is important. If the military screwed it up, then the US Gov’t should be repaying those soldiers not Delta. Let me be clear, if the policy was communicated to those soldiers that they could bring 4 bags, then someone ought to be a) clarifying that for future soldiers and b) making sure those soldiers that payed get their money back with interest is there is any significant delay.

    And if it was Delta, then they should probably make those soldiers whole AND maybe a little something extra for the inconvenience – if for no other reason than it’s a smart business decision. But to say that Delta should make huge donations on to the military oriented non-profits or fly those soldiers and their families to some far away destination at Delta’s expense is a bit out of bounds IMO.

    Mistakes happen. The company’s response should be measured and quick and it should seek to make the consumer whole. To expect companies to shower consumers with extras every time a company makes a mistake is to train consumers to become social media terrorists. To threaten and likely carry through with threats to “put this on YouTube, or blog about this.”

    We cannot afford to train consumers to expect more than they rightly deserve when a company makes a mistake, especially when we haven’t even fully clarified who made the mistake yet (military or Delta). It simply creates a future that few brands will want to or can afford to participate in.

    @TomMartin

  8. Karen Swim says:

    Hi Steve,

    From the PR perspective every crisis is an opportunity. Failures happen but how you respond to the failure can turn a negative into a positive. Sadly, Delta has consistently proven it’s ineptitude when it comes to customer service. If I were leading the PR team, I would have recommended not only a refund but free tickets for these men and their families. It also seems like a simple task to not charge the soldiers but have some sort of system to bill the military, if they’re not willing to waive the fee altogether.

  9. Thanks for all the great comments so far!

    So far I think we’ve identified multiple issues:

    1. Who is at fault here with the communication misunderstanding? That’s not clear.
    2. Is the current policy reasonable – or in need of further review?
    3. How much flexibility do/should Delta front-line employees have in a case like this?

    And, let’s point out one other uncomfortable matter that this brings to the surface – how easily do we (myself included) jump on to a bandwagon without pausing to consider all the facts? Social media makes it very easily to blow something like this up, with only one side/partial information presented. The whole situation is unfortunate, but one thing that perhaps we can all learn from it is this: jumping to conclusions is a trap any of us can fall into.

  10. Great follow-up blog post by Kevin Dugan – much-needed business perspective here:

    http://badpitch.blogspot.com/2011/06/delta-troop-fail-consider-bigger-less.html

  11. I think there is always an opportunity with a crisis like this. But usually the best response is in the same media as the complaint. I would advise Delta Airlines to do their own video response. It will humanize them more than the text response.

    • I agree. And the best thing they can do is take a calm, rational, yet conciliatory tone. Explain as best they can how such mixups can be prevented in the future. I hope they don’t over-grovel, though – sends the wrong message.

  12. Pingback: Delta’s latest PR episode details the need to engage your brand advocates | MackCollier.com - Social Media Training and Consulting

  13. Interesting the video has now been removed so I cannot view the message. Wondering if that was pressure from the military? If it was, that did not serve Delta as now it gives appearance that the soldier was given a push from higher up. Isn’t that the point of a bottom up communication? To gain the ability to have conversations that are not being addressed from top down?

    I agree with Karen, taking the stance “who’s fault is it- is never a winning stance” it looks petty.

    Were there emotionally charged issues here, of course, that is why it got attention.

    My question at this point is- what will companies do from here forward? Are you going to keep handling things like before??? OR Will you see that we are not in the past and new policies need to be made so responses are in real time with real solutions and not empty air.

    Yes, David is right Delta missed opportunity to humanize their solution by not making it a video.

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