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Delta Air Lines Just Made a Big Apology, and It’s a Lesson in Effective Leadership

A long time ago there was a movie with a famous quote: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”

It’s a silly line, actually. (The actress who had to say it later explained that she hated it.) People in love have to say they’re sorry all the time.

People in business do, too. And luckily, this week, we have a very good example to look at.

It’s the apology message that Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian sent to SkyMiles members, and that the airline broadcast to millions more passengers via its website, the media, and even Bastian’s personal LinkedIn page.

Let’s set the stage, and break it down why it works so well.

‘Nothing enjoyable about about flying’

If you’ve been on an airplane lately, or heard anything at all about air travel this summer, you know it’s a fraught situation. Aircraft are often overbooked, flights are getting delayed and canceled, airline employees are overworked, and passengers are unhappy.

On Saturday, according to FlightAware, almost 650 U.S. flights were canceled and 5,200 delayed (not specific to Delta).

Perhaps the best summary of the situation I’ve seen came from a flight attendant who went viral recently with her summer 2022 travel advice. Her first suggestion: Don’t fly if you can drive.

(“I’m not kidding,” she wrote. “There is nothing enjoyable about flying right now.”)

If you’re flying Delta Air Lines specifically, you’re flying on an airline where the pilots are picketing for a new contract, and the overbooking problems got so bad recently that Delta wound up offering passengers $10,000 each to give up their seats and take a later flight.

Against that, Delta wanted to apologize for its delays and cancelations, and set things up for a better experience going forward.

I think the airline’s apology message worked for three reasons:

  • because it displayed an overall understanding of what an apology can and can’t do,
  • because it’s organized with an “up, then down, then ‘up higher'” framework, and
  • because it leveraged five key emotions throughout.

For what it’s worth

At the outset, we have to acknowledge that if your flight is canceled, and your vacation plans or business trip is scuttled as a result, there’s not much that an airline can do to make you happy.

An apology won’t be worth the electrons it takes to send it. But, the only thing worse than an ineffective apology is no apology at all.

In other words, you have to make the attempt, even if you don’t think it will accomplish much. You don’t want your passengers in the position of thinking afterward: “They messed up our vacation, and then they didn’t even apologize!”

This also means that in most business situations, it’s very difficult to get an apology right, but there are a lot of easy ways to get it wrong.

Ironically, it becomes easier to craft a decent apology when you understand that almost nothing you can possibly say could make the situation right for your most-wronged customers.

1. Excitement

The message begins by leveraging an important emotion. It begins with this sentence:

“The summer travel season is well underway, and I share the excitement of so many of you who are returning to the skies as restrictions lift and entire regions of the world reopen.”

This communicates  both a subtle sense of community, and a positive emotion (“excitement”), juxtaposed against a quick description of the hardships we’ve been through as a people. Always start this way if you can.

Contrition

Next up, contrition. And it doesn’t take long to get into it:

“At the same time, I know many of you may have experienced disruptions, sometimes significant, in your travels as we build our operation back from the depths of 2020 while accommodating a record level of demand.

If you’ve encountered delays and cancellations recently, I apologize.”

This is the way to do it: A quick summary of the problem, and a direct, unadorned apology. Get in, do what you have to do, and get back out.

Self-confidence

From here, the next important point involves some confident assertions about Delta’s overall success:

“We’ve spent years establishing Delta as the industry leader in reliability, and though the majority of our flights continue to operate on time, this level of disruption and uncertainty is unacceptable.

You choose to invest your time, resources and loyalty with Delta and you’ve rightly come to expect a world-class experience on every flight, and that includes the best reliability in the business.”

Again, are you likely to be assuaged if your flight is delayed but Delta tells you that it’s overall record is quite good? Not really. But, the point is to remind and reassure that the current problems should be an aberration.

Gratitude

You can’t go wrong with gratitude; even when you’re thanking someone other than the intended audience. So here, Bastian makes sure to thank and encourage Delta’s employees:

“Despite the historic challenges facing our industry, Delta’s team of 75,000+ professionals around the globe remain focused on providing the very best care for you and your loved ones.

I want to thank them for their continued professionalism, resilience and the truly outstanding service they continue to deliver on a daily basis.”

This one feels especially apt given that Delta passengers on the way to the airport might actually encounter protesting Delta employees.

Confidence

Everything else so far is to get you to this last point, where Delta explains why the airline thinks you should trust it going forward:

“Things won’t change overnight, but we’re on a path towards a steady recovery. Steps we’ve taken include offering more flexibility for your travel plans and adjusting our summer schedule so that when challenges do occur, we can bounce back faster.”

It also lays out some specifics:

  • strategic scheduling of crews
  • travel waivers ahead of inclement weather
  • earlier boarding times and schedule changes to reduce delays
  • “Peach Corps” brining in corporate office employees to help with operations
  • accelerated hiring

Will it work? Who can tell? But one of the fun things about watching the airline industry is the degree to which they have to work out their problems in real-time, in the public eye, and with every single step watched by an army of analysts, investors and journalists.

It’s why I always suggest that business leaders in any industry should follow the airlines, and while I’ve published a free ebook of lessons you can learn: Flying Business Class: 12 Rules for Leaders From the U.S. Airlines.

And if that doesn’t work, contact Bastian himself.

“People email me every day, every hour, and that’s a good way,” he said last year. “If somebody needs help, just send me a note. I’ll take care of you.”

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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