Delta is truly annoying customers. Its solution is, oh, good luck with this

Sometimes, technology can't be what airline passengers really want it to be. Because what they really want are human answers.
Written by Chris Matyszczyk, Contributing Writer

Sometimes, only humans can do the job.

Screenshot by ZDNet

It's a world of good cheer for Delta Air Lines.

The airline actually made a profit in the third quarter. Its employees are getting vaccinated without (exactly) being told to. It believes business travel will fully return in 2022.

It's not a good time, then, to be annoying the living daylights out of your customers. Especially some of your most loyal, uplifted customers who travel regularly. You know, the rich and business sorts.

Yet here's Delta becoming something of a joke, of the slightly bitter kind.

You see, the airline resorted to technology to solve something that, may I desperately suggest, technology may not easily solve: customer service.

As the pandemic performed its worst across the world, as flights were being cancelled, rescheduled and cancelled again, Delta added what it called "a new phone platform."

This, said Delta in July, "automatically equips our agents with even more details about your travel, so they can address your questions efficiently and get you on your way."

I can hear you automatically equipping yourself with wonder as to how it's all going. Well, reports suggest that it isn't going swimmingly. Because no automated phone system ever goes swimmingly, does it?

Within seconds, your shoulders tense and your mouth whispers expletives. Within seconds, you realize that the whole purpose of the phone system is to discourage from believing you'll ever get to talk to a human being. Or ever get an answer to your problem.

With Delta's new phone system, it appears its SkyMiles Medallion Members are experiencing some of the biggest frustrations. Or, perhaps, the loudest.

They complain they can't get the system to understand why they so urgently need to talk to a human customer service representative. The usual reason for such an urgent need is that the human customer service representative is more likely to be able to speak human.

But phone systems are cheaper. They never get sick. They never complain. And they most certainly never give the customer attitude. Except in a sort of San Francisco, passive-aggressive way.

Indeed, I tried to call Delta's phone system and among the very first words I heard were those of a machine telling me that I may experience "long waits." That's not exactly inviting, is it?

I pressed on, however, and felt a frisson of anticipation when I soon heard the dialling sound that usually presages talking to a human. It was a cruel tease. I was merely being transferred to a menu. Oh, I can imagine how customers don't warm to this.

Delta may have heard some of its big-time flyers' plaintive cries about the new phone system. (They don't represent the majority, says Delta.)

On its third-quarter earnings call on Wednesday, the airline announced that it's already hired 8,000 employees. To which the New York TImes' Your Money columnist Ron Lieber mused on Twitter: "Will any of them have anything to do with bringing the telephone wait times down from six hours or whatever the current average is?"

Well, other experts tweeted that perhaps as many as 1,500 of these new employees will be reservation agents. Delta reportedly confessed it may need to add more. 

Which is all very dandy. But as the Delta -- oddly, Delta Air Lines doesn't call it that -- variant (hopefully) recedes, those new reservation agents may have to face a lot of excited, or perhaps huffy, calls. (If the callers can get past the new phone system, that is.)

And how many reservation agents will truly be needed to assuage the pain caused by the airline's technological imperfections? These may have been exacerbated by the fact that Delta let a lot of reservation agents go during the pandemic.

Then again, desperate logicians will even sniff that if the phone system really is putting many people off, will the new reservation agents have enough to do?

One other kink. At a time when millions are quitting their jobs, how much will Delta have to pay in order to attract suitably tolerant candidates?

Peculiarly enough, wise financial analysts are worried about, among several things, the rising cost of Delta's wage bill.

Though tech startups want to believe otherwise, the essence of customer service remains humanity.

Only humans can interpret well, a majority of the time. Only humans can soothe well, at least some of the time. And only humans can provide answers and instantly know whether the customer is actually satisfied.

After all, if you scream at a robot, it likely will have no idea why.

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