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.
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 Patriciacommented 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…