Public Relations

4 Tips for Handling a Delta-Sized Customer Experience Debacle

Learn from Delta's crisis communications strategy.
4 Tips for Handling a Delta-Sized Customer Experience Debacle
Image credit: Joe Raedle | Getty Images

Delta made headlines last week, and not in a good way.

The airline grounded, canceled and delayed more than 4,000 flights within three days, leaving customers stranded, fuming and frustrated. Still, Delta did a good job scrambling to fix the system failures responsible and the company combined this with proactive communication via social media and its website newsroom to mend relationships with customers they unintentionally hung out to dry.

While many believe Delta will walk away from the incident unscathed no matter how the company handles the situation, the truth of the matter is that customer loyalty is at stake. And Delta knows it. That’s why the airline is working around the clock to communicate with customers; offer alternative solutions; and build trust in the face of uncertainty.

Delta isn’t the first company to fail its customers in a massive way, and it won’t be the last. Ultimately, these instances unearth opportunity - a chance to be transparent and win customer loyalty for the long haul. Mistakes happen, and that’s okay. Brands can come away from failure stronger than ever as long as it’s handled the right way.

From small customer service hiccups to massive debacles, here are four tips to help you come out of any crisis stronger than ever before.

1. Communication is key.

Before you communicate with customers, make sure you’ve communicated internally. It’s important to come together as an organization to figure out what happened, what needs to be done and what should be said externally. That way, when it comes time to communicate with customers, everyone is on the same page, the message is well thought out and delivered seamlessly.

Once you’ve worked out a communication strategy, cut off any unnecessary advertising and marketing campaigns. Doing so gets rid of any extra noise, allowing you and your team to focus on delivering the information that is most important. It also ensures that customers can easily find news and updates without distraction.

When it comes time to bring customers into the conversation, be transparent. Explain what the issue is, why it happened and what’s being done to resolve it. This information should be shared on every channel - from the company website and newsletters to Internet forums, social channels and everything inbetween. Leave no stone unturned. And be sure to keep information and updates consistent across channels to avoid confusion.

Take Delta, for example.

The moment delays and cancellations began to accumulate, Delta dedicated its website and social channels to communicating updates. What’s more, Delta CEO Ed Bastian, openly and honestly explained the situation and recovery process to customers, apologizing for the mishap and promising it won’t happen again.

Related: The 'When' and 'How' of Using PR Correctly

2. Show compassion. Don’t make excuses.

As you engage with customers, make sure to maintain a consistent tone of voice, and show empathy from start to finish.

Don’t say or publish anything that feels impersonal or cold. And, as you explain what went wrong, be prepared to take full responsibility even if some circumstances are unavoidable.

Finally, it’s important to go beyond the obvious "I’m sorry." Show customers you know what they’re going through and that you understand their frustration. If this is done well, customers will be more forgiving. If it’s done poorly, you’re in for a social media storm that could very well spill over into traditional media. The result? A series of unflattering headlines that will stick with you longer than you’d like.

Following the disappearance of Malaysia flight MH370, the airline sent an insensitive text to inform relatives of the deceased that the plane had crashed in the southern Indian Ocean. As you can imagine, the company received widespread criticism, as angry customers took to Twitter and the media. Although this case called for extreme care and caution, it’s an important reminder that all situations should be addressed with appropriate compassion.

Related: How to Gracefully Handle an Online PR Crisis

3. Keep employees informed.

Every department plays a role in crisis management.

Make sure all employees are aware of what’s going on and that they understand their role in resolving the issue. At the end of the day, your employees will be left to handle the brunt of customer frustration. That’s why every team member should be kept up-to-date with the latest information.

During Black Friday last November, we watched customers become frustrated with some retailers for lack of proper information on inventory location. What made it worse was clerks were telling people to shop online, and online sites were telling customers the asset sat in the store. It’s important to ensure everyone sees the same information.

What’s more, you’ll need to empower your employees to comfort upset customers and offer solutions to make the situation better. For example, a hotel chain that is experiencing power outages should empower employees to assist guests in booking alternative accommodations, compensating those displaced by the incident.

Related: Starbucks Couldn't Buy Better PR Than the Red Cups Coverage. Here's What We Can Learn From It.

4. Make things right.

While you work out the kinks and resolve whatever has gone wrong, be sure to offer a solution.

For example, Delta is allowing delayed customers to reschedule their flights free of charge. On top of that, the company is giving out $200 vouchers for delayed customers - a move that will encourage customers to continue flying Delta down the road.

In some situations, you’ll want to work with each customer on a case-by-case basis, prioritizing the most urgent cases first. This ensures that each unique situation is handled with care. Forexample, Delta brought in its private jet fleet to help transport some stranded passengers more quickly.

Outages happen. Weather gets in the way. Systems go down, and products break. It’s all part of being in business.

In an ideal world, we’d be able to avoid these disasters that cause both customers and companies a whole lot of heartache. But sometimes failure is unavoidable. At that point, it’s all about how your brand handles the situation. With each hiccup, there comes opportunity. If you treat customers with care and respect, you’re likely to walk away with stronger, long-lasting relationships.