An Unnecessary Sour Taste

The world would run a lot smoother if organizations were more willing to accept accountability and be a bit more empathetic .

The setting was LAX, at 10:30 PM waiting on the red-eye back to Cincinnati. The gate was still showing a 10:47 departure time, but no information of any kind had been provided about boarding time, which is usually about 30 minutes prior. So I then walked over to the big screen listing the departures and found that my flight was shown as boarding. Hmm, that was interesting, and a flat out lie. Then I noticed some commotion at the gate, which turned out to be people just now disembarking from the inbound plane, which we would be taking on to Cincinnati. Right behind me was a phone with a direct line to customer service, so I figured what the heck. I called and asked for a reasonable departure time, since absolutely nothing was being communicated at the gate. After being told my flight was not showing up on her computer (interesting), the representative called airport operations. After a couple of minute wait, she came back and told me my flight should be departing soon. When I mentioned the screen indicated the flight was boarding, she mentioned they have no control over that.” Translation: there was absolutely nothing of value offered by customer service.

Based on the audible grumblings around me, a lot of people were irritated by the mysterious delay. (It was the end of the day and many were already tired and likely dreading the lack of sleep awaiting them.) And all Delta had to do was demonstrate a little accountability and empathy, and things would have been much better. First, they could have announced a delay due to a late inbound aircraft. They had that information but chose to ignore it. Passengers would likely have shrugged their shoulders and said “figures,” but would be in the loop. Second, control or not, the telephone service rep could have accepted some accountability for what was posted on the screen. I got the impression Delta did not feel any responsibility for the false information about boarding which was on the screen. The message felt like, You the passengers are being lied to about our flight, but hey, it is not our problem. Wake up Delta – in your customers eyes, it is your problem.

No need for me to comment on that totally unhelpful response – your flight will be departing soon. Are you kidding? I have often wondered just how the word soon is defined by the airlines. Does it mean minutes or hours? Most of you can relate.

The anger felt by many could have easily been resolved if one single Delta employee would have picked up the mike and let people know the information in front of them. It did not matter if the delayed inbound was their fault or if they did not have a confirmed departure time from air traffic control. They could have acknowledged both, informed people about the normal turnaround time and estimates for boarding, and finally offered a word about progress being made. That willingness to communicate would imply some ownership of the situation. This 20 second message would have made a world of difference. But no one chose to own this piece of customer service.  And since words such as “they” and “soon” are really code words for passing the buck, the customer service rep left me with a completely unnecessary sour taste in my mouth about them.

With weather, air traffic issues, and normal unexpected problems that can occur, airlines have enough challenges to deal with. It is a shame they continue to make life harder for themselves – and their customers – than it really has to be. Don’t let yourself or your own company fall into the same trap.


  1. Excellent, real life challenge where we often hope an employee will
    demonstrate “a little accountability” or
    the telephone service rep could have accepted “some accountability” or a company like
    Delta did not “feel any responsibility” or communication that
    would imply “some ownership” of the situation…

    From the perspective of employees, you have identified exactly why employees think, feel and say they are accountable and then the customer has a poor experience. It starts at the top of the company, the leadership, who frames ACCOUNTABILITY and how it will work (or won’t) in the corporate culture.

    A “little or some” accountability from the point of view of the employee is “I have the some or little responsibility for the customer experience that is working, you have the rest.” ( Total personal accountability for excellence in customer service is confused with “what I can and cannot control” in most corporate cultures. That is such a travesty because it results in these types of customer service meltdowns that are difficult to recover.

    Too many leaders do not understand that you cannot mandate accountability, you can only demonstrate it. When leaders speak of “some ownership” for their own failure or beg their work force to take “some accountability” and wish employees would “feel responsible” for the customer experience they are setting the expectation right there. Employees think and feel that they do, for the most part, take some accountability. Of course total accountability is more easily understood when they get a letter of praise or a situation works out.

    Leaders may spend too much time and resources on “behavior” training to attempt to get full ownership for the customer experience. Just as was pointed out in this customer service experience that went sour, all that was needed was some common sense communication. Teaching communication skills, role playing, debriefing customer service complaints are all great but if the mindset does not shift to “I am totally, personally accountable for the customer experience; individually and collectively then just like the belief “there is never enough time” no class, conversation or training that is going to address the root cause of a lack of time or poor customer service.

    Teaching management accountability skills starts with educating leaders and managers about what accountability is and then living by the mantra, “you cannot mandate accountability you can only demonstrate it”. You want to see customer service that is sweet when things go sour? This would be the ticket. Happy trails.

    • Thanks Linda,

      Funny how seldom I hear organizations talk about accountability as a value, and how little time is spent helping associates understand how crucial it is to the customer experience.I would be rather curious how often accountability is even associated with the customer experience, when companies post that as their newest corporate strategy. Ownership requires work – and courage. Hopefully you will continue to help more people discover what a difference accountability can make.

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