Experience Blog

The Ethnography of Experience

Delta Blues: Missing Those Moments that Matter


Travelling is hard. Travelling with a child is harder. Travelling with a child to attend her grandmother’s funeral is even harder still. Travelling with said child to catch a 7:00am flight? Forget about it.

Such was the situation when my daughter and I were making our way to Grand Rapids, Michigan to attend the funeral services of my mother-in-law. It was a tough situation in all the obvious ways, made more difficult by the hurried arrangements to get my wife and three daughters to destination. My youngest and I had to travel separate on the actual day of the funeral due to her being at a sleep-away camp for the last two weeks. I had to retrieve her the night before from Camp Wabasso in New Hampshire, a 3 ½ hour round trip in rush-hour traffic. In order to make it to the services in time, we would have to leave our home at 4:30am to make the airport in time to get through the typical early morning security rush and make the gate.

All was going well. The TSA agents kept the lines moving, and we made the gate with 30 minutes before boarding. While you have to expect chaos in the morning at a busy airport like Logan, they do a pretty good job at managing the mayhem. This depends on the acts of individuals that together form the overall travel experience.

‘Moments that matter’ is a concept that I really like, as it refers to those little situations that can really have a major (often unexpected) impact on a person’s experience. Moments that matter are marked by situations that feel: personalized, genuine, connected, rewarding, and unexpected. In other words, it is like doing something nice for someone when you don’t have to. Going that extra mile. Going above and beyond what is required. These are the moments that can make relationships, as well as build brand loyalty. Failing to recognize moments that matter can have the opposite effect of creating a sense of distance and an oppositional relationship.

Due to being on a small plane, the gate attendant announced that they would be having to check some bags. Because we had to make a short connection, I didn’t want to check my bag since it contained my funeral clothes. I approached the attendant and inquired (this interaction is paraphrased), “I’m travelling with my daughter to attend her grandmother’s funeral today. My clothes for the funeral are in my bag. I really don’t want to check my bag and risk it not getting to my destination. Is there I way I can make sure not to?”

The response I got was something like, “Bags can move faster than people.” I guess this was his way to indicate that my concerns were unfounded. I then responded, “I’ve also have bags not get to my destination until too late, and I can’t have my bag not arrive with me.” Obviously I was not buying his rationale of fast moving bags. He then countered with something like, “Well if there is enough space in the plane, you can take your bag.”

This, of course, restates the obvious policy that if there is room for your carrying on bag, you can carry on your bag. This was exactly the situation I wanted, and was asking for some reassurance since I was in one of the later boarding groups. I wanted to know if there was a way he could help me get my back on despite my later boarding status.

“I know that if there is room for my bag I can bring it on. But I need to make sure it is on there because I don’t want it to not make my connection,” I pleaded. Again, the response from the gate attendant, “I can’t control if there is not enough room. If it fits you can take it on.”

Actually, you can control if I could board in an earlier group. You can control if you can make sure to put the bag on earlier. You could tell me you are sorry for my daughter and me having to go to a funeral. You could try to alleviate my concerns by telling me that it is more than likely that there will be enough room. You could tell me that you would love to help me, and will try to do what you can when boarding starts. You could do any number of things that would show some level of attention to THIS particular conversation, in THIS moment, and not just site obvious policy.

I left the counter and said, “I’m not asking you to move the plane. I was just asking for some help.”

If things stopped there, it would have been annoying enough. But it didn’t stop there as I tweeted out the following message

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I was curious if there would be any response from @delta, and in fact there was”

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What is remarkably bad about this is that it committed the same issues that I had in the face-to-face interaction. No uptake on the fact I was traveling to a funeral. No attempt at genuine empathy. No personalized response. Just a restatement of obvious policy that if there is room for your carry-on, you can carry it on. Obviously, this was not helpful. Which prompted the following response from me”

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I thought this would HAVE to make them acknowledge the context of the situation. Nope. True to form, I got the following response:

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I honestly had to wonder whether this was a person or just an automated response. I was hoping that it was automatic, as that would help restore my faith in humanity more.

At the same time, if it was automated, it showed a lack of empathetic design. Why not use the key word “funeral” in the original tweet to produce some kind of acknowledgement token? Why not focus on the reformulation of my original statement to formulate a better response targeted to my stress and anxiety?

There is a lot that could have been done differently along these interactions. In the first instance, it would have required listening to the context of the request, and not just the request itself. Playing yourself in the position of the customer and seeing the situation from that perspective. Listening and processing before speaking and reacting.

From the design perspective, assuming the twitter response was a bot, the system could have been designed with keyword activation responses to deliver some mention of the larger situation. Better yet, have a person on the other end who could produce something that felt like it as constructed for the situation.

There was enough room on the flight for my bag, so it turned out not to be an issue. Upon reflection, I was just looking for some reassurance from the gate attendant in my anxious state of travelling to bury a family member. A few kinds words in a moment of need. If you can’t do that much for your customers, you should think about why are you in business in the first place.