Lessons From Southwest Airlines' Stellar Customer Service

Southwest Airlines is beloved by its customers and employees. Here are three customer service lessons any business can use.
August 21, 2012 It isn’t often that the words ‘exceptional customer service’ and ‘airline’ are in the same sentence. Tricky rules regarding flight-schedule changes, high fees and sometimes-rude employees have given the airline industry a bad rap.

It is this reputation that Herb Kelleher went up against when he founded Southwest Airlines in 1971.

“Herb’s vision was that we were going to provide excellent customer service in an industry not known for treating customers well,” says Teresa Laraba, senior vice president customers for Southwest.

They’ve succeeded. Now, 41 years later, the airline is known for exemplary service—corporate employees even send personal letters of thanks or apology for flight delays and other inconveniences to customers. The result of this effort is a high degree customer loyalty. The proof is exhibited through social media. At press time, Southwest had more than 3.1 million ‘likes’ on its Facebook page, compared with 363,000 for United Airlines and 355,000 for Delta.

So how can your small business achieve such high levels of customer satisfaction? Laraba offers a few suggestions.

Focus on your hiring process. Southwest looks to hire people with engaging personalities and who are excited to work with the public. They do hire former airline industry employees, but only if candidates fit the cultural bill.

“We will not hire a person who isn’t friendly but has been in the industry for 20 years,” says Laraba.

Beyond finding people with the right personalities, she also focuses on a candidate’s passion for working at Southwest. She says it is important to only hire people who truly believe in what your company is trying to deliver.

Give your employees latitude. Southwest allows staffers the authority to make snap decisions (within boundaries) in the name of customer service. The latitude not only helps with consumer relations, but also makes employees feel empowered to rectify a situation on the spot, a positive for employee engagement and retention.

Laraba gives the example of a man who approaches a flight attendant with the news that he's going to propose to his girlfriend in flight. In an effort to make the moment more memorable for the couple, the flight attendant makes the decision to grab a bottle of champagne (at no cost to the customer) and then teaches the man how to use the intercom system.

“I can’t tell you how many times that exact situation has happened,” she says. “When you give employees latitude, it makes them feel happier in the workplace and when they come in contact with a customer, they only extend how they already feel about their environment.”

Apologize. Southwest’s Proactive Customer Service department is dedicated to answering consumer concerns and requests. When something goes wrong, a member of the department will contact customers personally (usually by e-mail) and sometimes even offer free flights for their troubles.

“We won’t send a voucher every time we have bad weather, but if it is the right thing to do, we will send it,” Laraba says, adding that maintaining customer loyalty is the ROI of that practice.

She says it is important to apologize when wrong. Admitting a mistake, even without a monetary accompaniment, can be enough to keep a customer for life.

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