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“Wake up airplane!” — The customer journey driving Delta


At a major U.S. airport on a recent dark early morning, two airline mechanics reported for work. Their job: To “wake up” the airplanes at the gate, in the dark, to get them ready for the day’s service. Lights turn on, systems are activated, and everything is checked for the first flights of the day.

One recent morning, however, this routine changed. The two mechanics indeed performed their required duties. Except this morning, they decided to scour the gate area for families with young children – sleepy and crabby in the early morning dark – and asked their parents if the kids could help “wake” the airplanes. The kids jumped at the chance.

One mechanic in the terminal handed his radio to the kids, and had them say “wake up airplane” to the other mechanic, waiting on the plane. Lo and behold, like magic, the airplane came alive – lights glistening in the pre-dawn darkness, now “awake” for the day’s service.

The kids, of course, were thrilled.

Such ingenuity is now leading the “awakening” at Delta. Delta has learned that how its customers FEEL at every step of the journey, from initial booking to final return home, will make a huge difference in continued growth and profitability.

What does focus on the customer journey look like? First, Delta is starting to view itself not as a “transportation provider,” but as a “consumer brand.” The airline has adopted a measure called Net Promoter as a key metric. Net Promoter is a measure of consumer satisfaction, which prizes likes over dislikes. Executives cite Net Promoter score progress in speeches reviewing the company’s results.

Second, Delta is focused on differentiation, with focus on what the airline calls the “hard product” – airplanes, gate areas, food; and the “soft product” – what it FEELS like to interact with Delta people. This is what we at Chief Outsiders call “Big M” – finding areas meaningful to your customers that you can improve, and be better at, than your competition.

Delta in some ways is taking a contrarian view to differentiate itself. For example, most airlines are cramming in a 10th seat in every coach row on wide body planes, up from nine across previously. Delta, based on its knowledge of the customer journey, has figured out there is a large group of customers who will pay a bit more for a more comfortable seat – hence they are staying with nine abreast. Competition is also in many cases removing seat back video screens – too expensive to install and maintain. Delta is going the other way – their new planes will have state-of-the-art screens on every seatback.

What about the all-important “soft product” – human interaction? Delta gives its frontline employees authority to ensure happy fliers to blunt the inevitable issues that arise over the course of thousands of flights a day. The company has rolled out new uniforms with the input of employees, breaking tradition by adopting bright purple colors – one more effort to engage employees and thereby engage passengers. By the way, Delta doesn’t call its consumers passengers; they refer to them as customers – real people with real needs.

And what about “waking up” the airplanes? That wasn’t some corporate initiative. That was two mechanics who demonstrated an understanding of what the customer journey is. Do you think those kids and families will have a positive memory of their trip on Delta?

What about the customer journey for your customers? Do you understand how you can be different, and better, than your competition? Do you have metrics like a Net Promoter score so it’s not all talk and no action? If not, renew your focus on the customer journey. And if you do, you will likely see the rewards Delta is seeing today, with more happy customers and financial returns at the top of the industry. Need an ally to help you undertake an exploration of an improved customer journey at your business? Let’s have a conversation.

Gary Fassak is a partner and CMO at Chief Outsiders LLC. He can be reached at