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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]

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  • Anna Deuel

    I appreciated reading this story because this very same Mr. Karim Sayoud saved me a week ago at the CDG airport! I was searching ways to leave a customer care comment about him when I came across this story. After a broken train and a missed flight, Karim spent 60 minutes helping my daughter and me to find ways to get from Paris to Minneapolis. I know that most employees would have stopped at 'buy new tickets' , but Karim was determined to find a way to save me from spending another 6000 euros. He treated the situation like his own personal problem, and his theatric expressions displayed his utter sincerity :) He went far above and beyond what he had to do, and eventually did find us a deal. Delta should be proud to have Karim on their team. It is always individuals that make the difference… Employers are wise to recognize them and keep them!

  • Leon D'Silva

    Leon D'Silva
    Every one is entitled to his or her opinion or perception of the situation, however the customer service concern, initiative, proactive mindset , personal responsibility, cannot go unnoticed. This is what customer service is all about . Yes, I do agree that the company's service culture, training, etc all helps and adds up to such a talked of 'unbelievable service'
    Great job Mr Karim Sayoud.

  • OscarVancouver

    Is amazing to know there is someone like Karim, Since I know him personally I can say Hes the one who care about others. I am so proud of him, Once again He shown his professionalism and dedication to work in an environment where is easy to forget we are humans beings, so one more time, Thank you Karim Sayoud! 

  • Somayan06

    i have no words  but only a new thing to learn From Mr.Karim's commitment towards his job and company. I would say its much much more than a commitment, thts absolute passion and love for the work in wherever and whatever situation and position you are in.

  • Very Good Service

    Great story, now posted on our Google+ customer service community :)

  • Gareth

    Customer Service has taken a nose-dive over the years, but who's to blame?

    With the proliferation of Ground Handlers trying to outbid one another by lowering their costs, training is virtually non-existent and management care little about their staff. Aviation, like all other industries is price driven. Have a good look at air fares & take a reality check. YOU GET WHAT YOU PAY FOR!! 



  • Riccardo Varrazza

    Ahahahahahah I was exactely treated the opposite by Air France customer service.
    I was in London queing up for my flight to Tokyo via Paris. Had done check in at home night before and I was at 5.50 am in the queu to drop off my laggage. But people was not moving so as my flight schedule was getting close I approached two customer service ladies who kindly told me it was too late and I would have lost my flight. So they redirected me to the counter where I was old that it was my fault and i needed to pay a new ticket from London to Paris on the next available flight which was one our later. I tried to explain that it was not my fault, and guess what behind me a queu e people with the same issue was beginning to increase all people with the same issue: drop off service did clogh and let a lot of customers down. I kindly explained that Iw as queing from well 1h earlier. The employee behind the counter was very firm and the emplyee cutted short saying, "dear sir you have to decide if you want pay and take the next flight or still discc and loose the flight to Tokyo". In her unpoliteness she was right better swiping the card than rischeduling all my business agenda. So I did agreeing with myself that saving few pounds would not be worth all the being addressed like a cheater or the grief to deal with a very unpolite customer service. 
    Unfortunately the story did not end here, yes sometime we human being are a bit masochist however as I was not happy yet with the way how all the story did go and as being a long AF airmiles customer (i still hold the same card) I wrote to the airmailes customer service explaining all the happenng with all the emplyees name and all the detailed times. Well it was the last drop that made me loosing faith on the airline. You can immagine the kind of standard answer customer service received. 

  • Vinnie Vega

    I would not have expected this from Delta. Kudos, Karim Sayoud. Your colleagues at Delta (and a dozen other airlines) could take a lesson from this.

  • TimA513

    This is scary. This exactly how the underwear bomber got on
    the Delta flight from Amsterdam. No passport, no paperwork, no other
    documents....but lots of explosives. OBTW it’s illegal to mail passports via
    USPS, FED-EX, DHL etc...

    For me, this isn’t  an
    example of customer service. It’s a blaring example of the holes in our security
    system .

  • Bruce Bensetler

    Wow, I can't count the number of times I have broken the law by using FedEX to obtain a Visa stamp. 

  • Dannii

    Illegal to mail passports via UPS, FedEX, DHL? Which part of the world did you get this from? Are you generalizing by including the entire globe?

  • DepDeacon

    First comment, she flew the outbound flight so they had all the info in the system and believe me it was not just a few questions they had all the info they needed.  And it is not illegal to mail passports as long as it is signed for which apparently it was.  The underwear bomber had all his legal paperwork and passport, they are not fools they play the game so they do not stand out.  

  • Sam

    I fly often and I find that there are two angles to this. The first is an employee initiative - some people are better than others at serving customers. Those who take pride in their job and "live to serve" as it were, will generally go above and beyond. This is typically not representative of a brand, but it's an individual. The second angle is the culture and approach the brand takes to serving its customers. As excited as these employees with initiative may be, working in a culture of apathy and customer disservice will either dampen their efforts or drive them away. So customer service culture is crucial to good customer service, but I find it doesn't guarantee it. My experience with airlines is this: if the airline has horrible customer service, it is consistently horrible. If they pride themselves on good service, it will vary between average to above and beyond, depending on the individual.

  • Katie Binder Yu

    While I do not completely disagree with you, airlines, and other businesses hire people, and we cannot all be gems.  I will tell you that Delta's focus these days is to service the best customer service possible. We are trained and empowered to do what we can.  It isn't always enough to the passengers expectation, but we will try each time to give all that is in our power. We are encouraged to do all to make the experience as positive as possible. I cannot make every person I interact with happy, but I strive to each and every time!

  • Talha Khurshid Siddiqui

    Learned amazing lessons from this whole incident:

    The lessons I learned are:

    * A customer service is just as much worthy as any $30k ad.* Employees must understand their company and must give their best shots to represent the company's culture and value as it's ambassadors Remember, every employee is an ambassador.* Employees must be trained and encouraged to use their instincts and judgement for making better decisions every day.* Employees without any delay must be encouraged and appreciated for their efforts.Regards: Talha Khurshid Siddiqui "Marketing, HR and Enterprising Person/Analyst"

  • Steven Gold

    Several years prior to Delta & Northwest merging, I was returning from SFO to DTW. It had been raining  in San Francisco and I had purchased a large "doorman's umbrella" which, since I had only carry-on luggage, I brought to the boarding area to carry on. The flight was called for boarding and several hours into the flight I realized I'd left the umbrella back at the gate. "Oh well...", I told myself.
    Imagine my surprise when the next morning a taxi cab pulled up to my house and the driver delivered me my umbrella! Some unknown gate agent in SFO had found it, boxed it up & tagged it with a "delayed luggage, extremely urgent" tag and send it on the next flight!
    This was a perfect example of "going the extra mile" and delighting a customer. 

  • JustaGuy

    This story was posted on Linked...shame on you for falling for a cheap advertising ploy... The story itself would have been fine, the plugs for the company she worked for were not...booo!

  • Alan Curry

    I was a young Freshman at Wake Forest.  My family had just moved to NYC and it was Thanksgiving break.  In those days, Piedmont Airlines was the only airline that flew out of Winston-Salem, NC (it was their headquarters).  There was only one flight to Newark and . . . it was overbooked.  Four of us freshmen had no seats.  As we got our luggage in the empty termal at Smith Reynolds Airport to return to campus, an older man walked up to us and asked us what we were doing.  We explained that our flight to Newark had been overbooked and that we were heading back to spend Thanksgiving at our dorm.  He then said, "Follow me."  So we picked up our suitcases and followed him across the terminal, through some doors, down a hall and out a door onto the tarmack.  There sat a 4 engine private plane.  He told us to board the plane, which we did.  The pilot, co-pilot and engineer boarded and the 4 of us were flown, in luxury, to Newark. 

    The old man was Tom Davis, President of Piedmont Airlines and we were just 4 young freshmen from Wake Forest going home for Thanksgiving.