The Delta of Recovery

The pilots, engineers and perhaps pricing team at Delta and United know what Delta in physics means; measuring the change in something. We all know the importance of recovery when things go bad in customer service, experience management or service design. Recovery is queen.

Three members of the Capsule team (Kitty Hart, Maddi Wagner and myself) along with my co-author (Renee Marino) and a trademark attorney friend (Tiffany Blofield) were stranded in Miami when bad weather caused significant operational system challenges for Delta. Our original flight was cancelled and the next possible flight wouldn’t be until Sunday - three days later. We saw only one real option. We chose to make lemon meringue pie with our bag of lemons; we set out on a 27 hour road trip from Miami to Minneapolis. We exited a contract Delta had with us, entered a contract with a rental car company and our four fellow passengers. We turned into the wind and took on the adventure. Road trip!

As you might imagine, with four women and one man, the conversations were diverse and colorful throughout the waking hours. We scrounged for food at gas stations and a NASCAR driver would have been proud of our pitstop efficiency. Three of us did the driving but all of us were responsible for encouragement. We had a photographer, three writers and a couple complainers on board. Looking back now, most of the ride is a Redbull blur of listening to podcasts, road trip games and a fraction of Yuval Noah Harari’s book “Homo Deus” on Audible. We made it safely and count each other as closer friends after our arrival at the rental car return at 1 a.m.

To the Delta team in Atlanta: what happened to cause this “weather” issue from New York to Miami? From what we can gather, storms hit Atlanta and then the rest of the east coast, causing cancellations and stranded pilots and other airline personnel. But, because we’re in the business of observing human behavior and extracting what the real problems are from experience, interviewing fellow passengers and reading anything we can while driving 27 hours, we found something more.

We believe the Delta system is fragile and that should be a large concern for shareholders and the management team. This isn’t the software or hardware, but rather the complex system behind how planes, people and personnel converge to deliver the Delta experience. Systems that are durable and robust can handle interruptions, hiccups and parts of the whole failing. The internet was designed to be a robust system of communication and it is an impeccable example of a robust system. The Delta system is likely impaired by legacy belief systems from past mergers, aging hardware and software. But more importantly, a remnant recessionary focus on efficiency vs customer experience. The system isn’t broken, it just needs to be more durable and redesigned with human beings in mind (personnel and passenger alike).

Yet, here is the kicker in all of this hullabaloo. Delta found the delta in their recovery. We returned, woke up the next morning and finally got through to request a credit for the return flight. While the staffer applying the credit couldn’t do more on a Saturday, they did offer a number for these “Medallion Members” to ask for more. Well, this traveller failed to call right away due to fears of sitting on hold for a few hours waiting to get a real person. So, when an email came on Thursday (one full week after the fiasco) it took me by surprise. Twenty thousand miles as a “we’re sorry” showed up in my account. While it could have been more and certainly could have come earlier, like Monday, it was enough to make this traveler feel whole again. 

We can all pontificate on the importance of recovery, but someone has to decide how much recovery is appropriate. Someone at Delta had to make the decision to say “we missed the mark” and give an appropriate amount of miles as an apology. And, they had to decide when. Someone had to admit a change in perception had happened at the individual level, find the delta and compensate to recover.

Though, we can admit, the events at United cast a larger shadow and let the Delta brand enjoy some shade. 

Thank you Delta for finding your delta and delivering an appropriate recovery. If you need help redesigning the experience, we’d be happy to take a flight or road trip to Atlanta. We can help your team do the math on how much customer experience drives brand value. We’ve articulated it in The Physics of Brand and put it into practice with clients like Capital One, Panda Express, Penske, Patagonia, University of Minnesota and The Honest Company.

About The Author

Aaron Keller

I am an author, strategist, researcher, cyclist, reader and consummate entrepreneur. When an interesting idea crosses my path, I find any way we can bring it to life. Earning an MBA from the Carlson School and numerous valuable credits at the school of hard knocks, I’ll sit at a boardroom conversation with anyone. Want to talk business strategy, consumer behavior and design? Oh, it’s on.


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