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A Tale of Customer Service and Customer Disservice

Help/Blame GraphicA curious thing happened to me on the way home from a conference in Detroit: Delta Airlines gave me a hotel voucher for the Westin in the airport, and the Westin refused to honor it.

What’s really interesting is the difference between the follow-up response from Delta and from Westin and its parent company, Starwood Hotels. Delta tried to help and Starwood tried to cast blame.

The background is this: Weather was creating havoc across the eastern seaboard with practically no flights landing anywhere from Washington to New York, so my 5:30pm flight from Detroit to LaGuardia was delayed. By 6:30pm, the 3:30 to New York hadn’t left yet, the 5:30 (my flight) was tentatively scheduled for 7:45, and the 8:15 flight had an estimated departure time of 10:30. It was a mess.

I explained to Delta that I had been at a five-day conference and I was exhausted. If I landed in New York at 9:30, I thought I’d still be able to drive home safely. But if I landed at, say, 11:00, or (as was predicted for the 8:15-revised-to-10:30 flight) around midnight, I’d be too tired to drive. Could they help?

It was a gray area. On the one hand, the delays were weather related, and the airlines don’t usually take any responsibility for anything that might even rhyme with weather. On the other hand, I expressed my concern that Delta couldn’t give me solid information, and I had to make a decision. A supervisor agreed to put me up in a hotel, and then a desk agent started phoning around to find out where there was space. Fifteen minutes later, she told me that the Westin, actually in the airport, had a room for me. (Delta also gave me a $6 voucher for dinner, which is fine if all you want is a chocolate-chip cookie and a bottle of water to wash it down — but that’s for another day.)

Ten minutes later I handed the hotel voucher to an immaculately-dressed and hyper-polite desk agent at the Westin. After scrutinizing the document, he seemed concerned, though he didn’t tell me why. “Let me make a phone call,” he said and disappeared into the office behind the check-in desk. I thought he was new and didn’t know what a voucher was, or perhaps didn’t know how to process it. I was sure that some better-trained employee would set him straight.

But when he came back he told me simply, “I won’t accept this.”

“May I please speak to a manager?” I asked.

“I am the manager.”


It took a few minutes for me to learn that he didn’t have any rooms for voucher customers. That didn’t seem fair, and I told him so.

The manager agreed to make a few more phone calls. Some twenty minutes later I learned that, in fact, he didn’t have any rooms at all. His phone calls had been to try and find out who had made the mistake.

“I don’t care who’s at fault,” I told him — though my suspicion was and still is that the Westin gave my room to a VIP Westin customer even though they’d already promised it to Delta. “All I need is a hotel room, here or somewhere else. Can you help me? Do you have provisions for this sort of thing?”

He wouldn’t help me.

At this point I was balancing a few competing factors: I needed a hotel room. I also had to pick up my checked bag from baggage claim, and I was worried that if I waited too long they’d put it somewhere where it could be retrieved only after a lengthy wait in line. My cell phone didn’t have reception in the Westin lobby, so I couldn’t make any arrangements for myself from there. But the manager had left a voice message (or so he said) at Delta and they were on their way to help.

I decided to leave my carry-on at the Westin, run to baggage claim, get my bag, and run back as fast as possible, hoping not to miss Delta.

As it happened, I wasn’t late to baggage claim but early, a fact I learned when I didn’t see my bag and had to wait in (a mercifully short) line after all. There a Delta agent helped me track down my bag. I mentioned something like “at least one thing is going right,” and when she asked what I meant, I told her about the hotel. “Well let’s find you another hotel,” she said. And she did.

I went back to the Westin, got my carry-on, and took a shuttle to the Best Western, where a room key was waiting for me. Having just joined Twitter a little while ago, I tweeted a question to @DeltaAssist, copying @StarwoodBuzz and @Delta.

And this is where things really get interesting. Apparently from my tweet it wasn’t clear that I had found a replacement hotel.

Delta replied immediately offering to help.

Starwood also replied, publicly blaming Delta: “This seems to be an error on Delta’s end.”

My point here is not who made the initial mistake. I really don’t care. I have the manager’s name from the Westin, for example, but I’m not publishing it.

Rather, I think this is an example of two kinds of cultures: helping and blaming.

I’ve written before about the value of customer service (“For $12.17 you can have the best school in the country“), in the context of TD Bank helping me with a mistake that was my own fault.

It seems to me that helping a person no matter who is at fault, and whether or not the person is a current customer, is both kind and good business sense. Yet remarkably few businesses will spend money/time/energy/resources to help a person when they don’t think there’s any immediate financial gain in doing so.

I spend most of my professional life with faith-based not-for-profits, and, perhaps surprisingly, it’s been my experience that they tend not to do any better. They’ll often help a person only when it’s specifically part of their mission — because the person is a member, say, or a grant recipient.

What are the policies and culture where you work? Do you help or do you blame?

Categories: other
  1. MsColleen
    July 23, 2012 at 5:27 pm

    I’m no longer working, but I used to have a job as a Navy Personnelman, responsible for the paperwork needs of enlisted personnel in my squadron.

    Over time, I got a reputation that made me feel very proud, although it took several years to learn of my reputation. It turned out that the senior enlisted personnel – the Chiefs and First Class Petty Officers – started telling their people when they needed to go to Personnel to specifically talk to me, because, even if I could NOT give them the answer they wanted, I would show them why I couldn’t and see what we could do to get them the answer they wanted. Clearly, my reputation was earned because I sought to help in every way I could.

    And I felt rewarded every time I could get a smile from those whom I helped.

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