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Leadership

The True Story Of Amazing Customer Service From—Gasp!—An Airline

When Barbara Apple Sullivan, CEO of an eponymous brand-engagement firm, accidentally dropped her passport in a Charles de Gaulle airport mailbox just before boarding a flight, she was certain she'd be stuck for days. But thanks to a Delta employee, she made it on board and had her future travel plans transformed forever.

"Keep Climbing."

That is the slogan for Delta Airlines’s latest advertising campaign, which highlights its promise for a "reinvigorated customer experience." So often I have seen this television commercial and others like it, paying little attention to the message and the value proposition. My only takeaway was reassurance that the planes were pointed upward and not downward.

In such a saturated industry, it is difficult for any airline to differentiate the customer experience. The planes themselves are virtually identical. The food, if it exists, is universally awful. Airport security is conducted by an entity over which the airlines have virtually no control. And virtually everyone who flies has a personal horror story. Is it really possible to redefine the customer experience?

It was my personal experience with a single employee that emblazoned Delta’s value proposition in my mind forever. Their promise came to life in a real, tangible way. More than any advertising, more than an impactful website, more than those tasty biscotti cookies served on the plane, this really was a reinvigorated customer experience.


Allow me to set the scene. To my horror, I inadvertently dropped my passport in a mailbox at Charles de Gaulle airport last Sunday morning (it was bundled with all my VAT refund envelopes). The instant the mail left my hand and dropped to the bottom of the mailbox, I realized my error. Two airport employees told me it was impossible to open the mailbox on a Sunday since postal workers, who do not work on Sundays, have sole authority to open the box. I was told I must wait until Monday, go to the U.S. Embassy in Paris, and request an emergency passport before I would be able to fly. In desperation, I approached the Delta ticket counter and told them I had a BIG problem.

One gentleman behind the counter, Mr. Karim Sayoud, took my problem as though it were his own. He calmed me in my increasing panic, explained what he could do and immediately called the U.S. Homeland Security Customs and Border Control representative station at the airport.

Mr. James Wilkinson from U.S. Homeland Security came to interrogate me. All I had was my passport number. I had nothing else. No copy of my passport, no social security card, and the address on my driver’s license did not match my passport. After providing enough correct answers to convince him that I was in fact who I said I was, he agreed to let me travel, subject to the French authorities that retain final approval.

Karim Sayoud left his position at the Delta ticket counter, escorted me to Delta check-in, and he convinced his colleagues to accept my baggage (without the certainty that I would be on the flight) and issue a boarding pass. He then escorted me through French passport control and security, encouraging the authorities to let me through, and ultimately to the Delta gate agents. It was there that I was finally able to breathe a sigh of relief.



Sayoud didn’t stop there. After I was successfully on the flight, he took it upon himself to make certain that my passport was retrieved from the mailbox the following day and returned to me in New York. He actually taped a handwritten note on the mailbox so the postal worker would see it and return the passport to Delta once it was retrieved. He phoned and emailed me multiple times each day updating me on the status. Lo and behold, my passport arrived at my address by FedEx—a true customer-service miracle made entirely possible by one dedicated employee.

So what essential lessons can a brand learn from this?

  • Any and every interaction with your brand is meaningful, especially for a service brand. The service at the 6-foot level is just as important as the ad campaign at the 30,000-foot level, because a customer truly experiences a brand on the ground.

  • Employees must understand what their company stands for and how they are expected to behave as ambassadors to the brand. They are responsible for delivering the value proposition and even those performing the most mundane tasks must be trained accordingly.
  • Employees should be given permission to use their judgment. Hire, train, and empower them to represent the brand in the best possible way. Mr. Sayoud could have easily shrugged me off and told me to come back Monday, but instead he became invested in my problem and my Delta brand experience.
  • Employees should be rewarded for demonstrating the desired behavior. I personally reached out to Delta in thanks for the service I was provided and hope it impacts Mr. Sayoud’s life as it has mine.
  • As a marketer myself, I am both attuned to and immune to brand experience. Sure, I am a Delta gold medallion member and am already predisposed to fly this airline. However, this one experience has reinforced my decision to fly Delta at every possible occasion, because I know I’m in good hands. Thank you to Karim Sayoud and Delta for providing me with the ultimate gift of loyalty. May your brand continue to keep climbing.

    Barbara Apple Sullivan, is CEO and a managing partner of Sullivan, a multidisciplinary brand-engagement firm based in New York City. Follow them on Twitter at @sullivannyc

    [Image: Flickr user Nakae]