Delta’s Ausband: “Customer service is very important to the bottom line”

Allison Ausband/Delta

Here’s part two of my interview with Allison Ausband, Delta Air Lines’ vice president for reservations sales and customer care. You can read part one here.

Whatever happened to First Point of Contact? Does it still exist?

Absolutely. We’ve told our people either to fix it, or find someone who can, which is what First Point of Contact was all about. So, if you can’t solve a problem, raise your hand and talk to a leader.

We just started a program with our customer support supervisors in reservations. If they get to an impasse with a customer, they offer to end the call and then call or email the customer back after a short break. It gives the supervisor the chance to review the situation and consider some options that perhaps they hadn’t considered.

Since Nov. 1, we’ve had 131 callbacks, and a 70 percent success rate with the program.

We now have more situational flexibility. We know there are going to be times when our rules and our policies need to be waived based on circumstances they might not have considered.

What’s your customer-service goal? Are there any numbers you tend to fixate on?

I fixate on all of the numbers. For example, we’re number one in baggage, meaning we have the fewest DOT complaints. And we’ve been as high as number two on our disability numbers. We’re fixated on being number one for our customers.

There’s a perception among air travelers that things are being taken away from customers in the back of the plane and given to the folks up front and your elites. Is that a fair perception?

Well, we have elites in the back, too.

Of course.

From a business perspective, clearly the people who are spending the most revenue with you — they deserve to have some perks. So yes. And you know what those perks are.

But as I look at it from a reservations perspective, yes, we answer their phones quicker, they have a dedicated group. But at the same time, we’ve done a lot to support our essential customers, too.

The situational flexibility you referred to, that applies to both elites and non-elites?

We don’t draw a distinction. There may be more things we can do for an elite, in terms of service recovery, but we treat them the same.

You’re referring to leisure travelers as “essential” customers? That’s interesting.

We are. Because they are. They are essential customers.

Essential, but infrequent.

We understand that. We have another service recovery program called Delta Choices. Let’s say we just canceled your flight, and you can’t get to your honeymoon, or wherever you need to go. If you only fly on Delta once a year, a voucher is not a valuable means of service recovery.

We now offer any number of gift certificates — from Amazon, Nike, Marriott, Home Depot — that you can choose from.

That’s been well-received. So far, 90 percent of our customers accept it. It’s right on the money.

What else do customers complain to you about?

Well, seat changes. To solve for these issues, we have just introduced new technology to ensure like-to-like seating in the event of an aircraft equipment change or cancellation.

Look, I talk to a lot of air travelers, and they tell me air travel — at least in the back of the plane — is a slog. A lot of them remember what it was like to fly years ago, when we still had stewardesses and lots of legroom in the back of the plane and meals that were served on China. Don’t you hear that, too? Tell me I’m out of touch.

You’re out of touch.

Oh, thanks.

From a product perspective, what we hear are things like, “The in-flight entertainment didn’t work.” Or, there was an equipment change and I ended up with a seat I didn’t want. But not the, “I’m in a cattle car.” We don’t get that.

How do you get better service from an airline like Delta?

I honestly think we’re getting better and better every day. We’ve made it as easy as possible for people to tell us when something is wrong.

In 240 airports this year, we’ve expanded our “need help” posters to provide a quick way to get assistance. On the website, we now have a “comments and complaints” section. We’re calling customers who give us a low rating on surveys. We’re asking for more detail about that, about the reason for their disappointment. We highly value a customer who takes the time to sit down and give us their feedback.

Customer feedback is what’s going to make the service better.

Do you have support from Richard Anderson [Delta’s CEO].

I meet with Richard and the corporate leadership team once a month. I’ll show you something.

[She pulls out a file.]

I go in once a month, and I go over the DOT numbers. And I go through page by page to tell him what we’re doing to solve our customers pain pointsthat.

What does he say?

He’s proud of the progress. He’s interested in the actions that we’re taking. He has specific questions. They get in the weeds and it helps me gain support to drive improvements.

When did you start meeting with him?

We began in 2010. So we all now have a laser-like focus on service.

Does good customer service translate into higher shareholder value?

Absolutely. It’s always hard to put a dollar figure on better customer service. When you’re in any service industry, it’s hard to do that.

Better service, better product, it takes all of that. I think that translates into customer retention, which translates into higher revenue.

Clearly, we’re running a much better operation. Our numbers are climbing. They’re not where we want them to be yet.

The message is very clear at Delta: customer service is essential to the bottom line. The entire company is behind it.

I probably won’t see you for another two years. So what should I be asking about when we meet up again in 2015?

We have a rebooking engine launching early next year. The new system will be very creative. Our ultimate goal — and this is a two-year technology deliverable — is that we can send a rebooking option to any device you choose.

So when there’s an IROP [irregular operation, or flight delay] the message will say, “Chris, I’m sorry for the delay. Push one to be rebooked on this flight, push two for a refund, or push three for another option.” The res agent will have that same technology, and Delta.com will. It’ll be great for the customer.

We’re aligned with you, and what you do for the customer. That’s the role that my team plays every day. We’re going to get better and better.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at . Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • Bill___A

    I agree, customer service is very important to the bottom line. I received bad customer service from Delta in 1996 and I’ve never flown them since. I fly 50,000 miles a year.

  • Hans Lufthansa

    About the call centers: Some customers deserve to be hung-up on, but call center staff are far too quick to hang-up on customers. The alternative to hanging-up is faking a bad connection—“I can’t hear you, we have a bad connection.” Finally, customers calling from within the US should not be forced to endure a thick Jamacian or Hindu (India) accent.

  • Charles B

    Dear Delta, I’m in a cattle car. Signed, your frequent flier.

    Now you can’t say you don’t hear it.

  • K

    How amusing that I’ve come across this conversation while trying to search where I can file a consumer complaint against Delta (and KLM)! Ms. Ausband is clearly out of touch with the reality of the competence and dedication of Delta ticketing and customer service agents. Here is my most recent reality: I make a purchase based on the inaccurate information these agents dole out (twice), then find myself bait and switched after my 24-hour cancellation window has closed. when I call back to attempt to rectify the situation, I get treated like a nuisance by agents who really should not have their job but are somehow tolerated by management anyway. I have had other similar experiences and given negative surveys in the past, nobody has ever followed up on them. That “laser like focus on service” and other pat comments in this interview are also shockingly tone deaf — people want tangible results, not a sales pitch. And yes, it is a cattle car and your flight attendants make sure we remember that.

  • K

    No customer deserves to be hung up on. And more common still is a promise that a problem is fixed, then is revealed to not be but the same agent can’t be reached again, there are no notes in your profile and you have to start all over with a new agent — with the potential of same results. Who has the time to fight for something like this? Clearly the goal is to exhaust us until we stop complaining. I’m exhausted but I’m not giving up, looking forward to finding ways to file a consumer complaint against Delta (and its partner airline KLM) as soon as I am finished with my current work assignment. Thanks for the happy holidays, Delta-KLM-AF!

  • K

    How amusing that I’ve come across this conversation while trying to search where I can file a consumer complaint against Delta (and KLM)! Ms. Ausband is clearly out of touch with the reality of the competence and dedication of Delta ticketing and customer service agents. Here is my most recent reality: I make a purchase based on the inaccurate information these agents dole out (twice), then find myself bait and switched after my 24-hour cancellation window has closed. when I call back to attempt to rectify the situation, I get treated like a nuisance by agents who really should not have their job but are somehow tolerated by management anyway. I have had other similar experiences and given negative surveys in the past, nobody has ever followed up on them. That “laser like focus on service” and other pat comments in this interview are also shockingly tone deaf — people want tangible results, not a sales pitch. And yes, it is a cattle car and your flight attendants make sure we remember that.

  • Grant Ritchie

    You might find it useful to click the “Wiki” tab at the top of this page. Then, click “Airline”. You’ll be taken to a page with volumes of contact names and e-mail addresses, including (I just checked) Delta and KLM. Telephone complaints are pretty much useless. Start establishing an electronic “paper” trail… MUCH better when it comes time to sue or complain to the Feds. Good luck!

  • jim6555

    Ms. Ausband can say whatever she wants about how wonderful Delta’s customer service. What sticks in my mind is a gate agent with a nasty attitude at Delta’s miserable JFK Terminal 3 physically pulling my carry-on bag from my hand, saying it was too large to fit in the bin and forcing me to gate check it. I had brought this bag on board at least 50 times and never had a problem. When I boarded the aircraft, I saw that the bins were mostly empty. It’s amazing how one bad employee can destroy an image that an airline spends hundreds of millions of dollars to cultivate.

  • nkarman

    Are you kidding me? First point of contact? About a dozen times in the past 2 weeks I have been told by baggage services that there is no supervisor to speak with, nobody in claims to speak with, and I could “hang up and call back.” I have been berated and hung up on. It has been over a week, and your system has not been corrected- it still lists my bag as delivered (it was delivered to the wrong address, and left unattended in the hallway of a building, whose residents put it out with the trash!), and I cannot get the ear of a single person to even register a complaint. My online complaint submission has not been responded to. The list of numbers provided on the link all ring in the same location, with the same incompetents, with heavy unintelligible accents. Customer service is clearly your lowest priority.

  • Rose

    Dear Delta

    You claim to care about customer service, yet your customer support staff are some of the rudest, most unfriendly people in the service industry. They lack tact, grace, integrity, and transparency in their interactions with customers.

    My experiene is that you don’t care about people!

  • webb2k

    This “interview” is PR fluff. No questions regarding the way Delta handled the Marine corporal (the latest) and the soldiers charged for baggage upon return from Afghanistan (in 2011). Why does the Government even bother to fly military personnel on Delta? Delta’s treatment of civilian passengers is bad enough. It’s treatment of military is reprehensible.