“We Screwed Up.” It Was That Simple…

“W e screwed up.”

Exactly nine years ago today — in an old building in Atlanta which once housed Macy’s — those refreshingly candid words launched a presentation as part of an event by Delta Air Lines called The Velvet Rope Tour; and I can tell you that the ears of every attendee in that room perked up when they heard those three simple yet unexpected words on the evening of Thursday, May 18, 2006.

Jim Whitehurst — who was the chief operating officer of Delta Air Lines at that time — started the presentation by frankly stating that the reason Delta Air Lines was currently in bankruptcy was because “we have been failing you” and that Delta Air Lines has “not listened carefully enough to you”. He went on to say that 100 percent of the turnaround effort of Delta Air Lines will be on focusing on service and product, not on cost, as had been done in recent years; and that the goal is to be the number one carrier in the industry in terms of customer satisfaction.

Whitehurst — who is currently the chief executive officer of Red Hat, Incorporated in Raleigh and is still highly respected by many frequent fliers of Delta Air Lines — continued to say such refreshingly candid comments as “baggage performance was unacceptable and will be improved”; and had described the international product offered by Delta Air Lines as “tired”. Joanne Smith and Jeff Robertson — at that time, vice president of marketing and managing director, SkyMiles program respectively for Delta Air Lines — also acknowledged the shortcomings of the airline and outlined plans and improvements for the future.

When that evening concluded, I do not believe there was one disgruntled customer who left the building; and, of course, the food and beverages served at the event — which included the now-infamous chocolate fountain — did not hurt things one single bit. The frankness and perceived honesty of executives reaching out to customers, admitting shortcomings, and offering glimpses into the future had given everyone who attended a new-found respect for Delta Air Lines and its employees.

If you do not believe me, just read this discussion posted on FlyerTalk as evidence of that statement.

It is a shame that there are times where it seems that employees of Delta Air Lines have not learned from the example which was set that night — especially when it comes to the SkyMiles frequent flier loyalty program.

That could be changing, however — especially with Sandeep Dube and Karen Zachary, who have in recent months been respectively appointed as the vice president of customer loyalty and engagement and the managing director, SkyMiles global program management for Delta Air Lines. “While I did not spend a lot of time with Ms. Zachary, I found her to be open and honest about SkyMiles, a trend I hope to see continue in member communications going forward” is what Marshall Jackson of MJ on Travel wrote in this recent article. I have also met both Sandeep Dube and Karen Zachary in person and found them candid and honest; both of whom I have had the pleasure of discussing the SkyMiles program and Delta Air Lines in general…

…but many “bloggers” have been lamenting the supposed hidden agendas emanating from Delta Air Lines. The latest example is found in this informative article whose topic pertains to the possibility of a revenue ticket pricing model for redeeming SkyMiles to be used for award tickets by Seth Miller of Wandering Aramean, who wrote “So, yes, the end-on-end numbers can be better than just pricing it through as a single itinerary. But that doesn’t mean it is all good without the rate charts. And such data is published for revenue fares so hiding it from reward tickets really is less transparent than not.”

Transparency, clarity and honesty is not an issue solely for airlines to follow. With the exception of sensitive information which clearly needs to be classified, all businesses need to ensure that information is disseminated to their customers transparently, honestly and with clarity. “These are the most confusing award figures one can imagine. Basically you’re playing reward seat roulette, and they’re just waiting to count how many suckers would pay more than the base price (aka ‘saver level 1’ of the previous charts)” is what reader Patricia commented as a response to the aforementioned article written by Seth Miller.

Is this how customers should feel about the businesses they patronize?

If you read about articles such as this one by René de Lambert of Delta Points or this one by Gary Leff of View From The Wing — which are merely two examples of many articles by them and other “bloggers” — you will notice that the theme is not necessarily that the SkyMiles frequent flier loyalty program is worsening or becoming more unfriendly to customers; but rather the way policies and rules are being changed and implemented in a manner inconsistent with transparency to customers which is the source of frustration and mistrust by customers…

…and as I have mentioned multiple times in past articles such as this one, that loss of trust can prove to be harmful to a company when the economy falters — which will eventually happen, as the economy always rises and ebbs.

While conducting business in a town north of Boston years ago, someone asked me a question. “I do not know,” I responded, “but I will find out the answer for you.”

I received what I thought was an undue amount of praise from employees and colleagues for uttering such a simple yet sincere statement. They were not used to transparency and honesty. For them, it was refreshing to hear someone say something like that — and, of course, I came through on my word and found the correct answer to the question.

It is so incredibly simple to practice being straightforward and transparent with anyone — let alone customers — even if the information is not what that person wants to hear. It should not matter whether a company is flourishing or languishing in bankruptcy. Admitting to mistakes, taking responsibility for them and correcting them should not even be a second thought — and nor should being transparent to people with whom you conduct business.

Of course, it is naïve to think that just because you are honest, straightforward and transparent that other people will like what you have to say — but at least with many of them, you will earn their respect and trust. They will know that they can count on you for the truth.

Why is that such a difficult concept to grasp? Why does it seem that corporate communications and marketing departments of companies in general are loathe to be open, honest and clear? Why can’t we all work together to find better solutions which can result in a win-win situation for as many people as possible?

Management and executive personnel of companies may not feel they owe it to their suppliers, stakeholders and customers to grant every single request by them regardless of the consequences; but they do at least owe their customers truthfulness, transparency, honesty and clarity pertaining to the changes and implementation of policies which affect them; and they should learn from what Jim Whitehurst did on that spring night in Atlanta nine years ago — in my opinion, anyway…

Photograph ©2015 by Brian Cohen.

3 thoughts on ““We Screwed Up.” It Was That Simple…”

  1. Tom McCallum says:

    Trust is a hugely valuable asset for any business. Do your customers trust you ? Do your people trust you as leaders ?

    Transparency can be scary for corporates to adopt, yet when they are transparent, it can be a powerful driver of trust.

    As one would expect of a reader of this blog, I am a very frequent flyer. A while back i had an unusually poor experience with my main airline (AA) and I emailed them to let them know. The response came back within a day by email, quite bluntly (though not in these exact words) saying a) sorry, b) we screwed up, c) this is not acceptable by our standards, and d) again we are sorry. Oh, and the person gave me their direct email if I had any further feedback.

    Though AA did also compensate me in the usual way, that was almost incidental to me by that stage. They had built on my existing loyalty by the way in which they had responded.

    Transparency builds Trust.

  2. 02nz says:

    Amen re: Delta. I recognize they have the (out of the big three legacy carriers in the US) the most reliable operation and generally the best product (e.g. lie-flat beds with 100% direct aisle access in long-haul business class), but in ten years I haven’t given them a cent of my business, and that was incl. quite a few times when the flight times and/or fares were best on Delta. The reason is simple – I don’t trust their frequent-flier program, and unfortunately the last year has seen an increase of untrustworthy behavior by Delta in regard to its “loyal” frequent fliers. Not that I trust United much more – but they haven’t been quite as bad, and perhaps one day they’ll wake up from blindly copying every negative SkyMiles move (hope dies eternal!); and AA has been much better, though a devaluation is definitely looming. I get that airlines are filling their planes and don’t feel like they need to reward customers very much, but despite the “capacity restraint” it’s inevitable there will be harder times, whether as a result of higher oil prices or another recession (both of which are pretty much just a question of time), or competition from carriers providing superior service, esp. the Middle Eastern big three (and yes they get subsidies from their governments – and so do the U.S. carriers). No there won’t be another decade as tough as the 2000’s, but Smisek and Anderson may one day regret the arrogance they’ve demonstrated over the past few years – and sooner than they expect. (Then again, in all likelihood by then they’ll be somewhere else, their pockets lined handsomely.)

  3. Steve Benham says:

    Ii agree with your call to Delta to be more transparent. The new SkyMiles award AND redemption systems are equally confusing. The benefit for me choosing to fly Delta is decreasing. I’ve chosen to fly United on four trips (out of 15) since January because the benefit with Delta is no longer worth paying even a small additional premium.

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