Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Southwest understands customer focus

Flying has become such a chore that I avoid it as much as possible. But sometimes it's not possible. When I have to fly, I fly Southwest. Everybody has heard about the big things Southwest does, like leaving and arriving on time, the high customer satisfaction scores, the profitability when all the other airlines are losing money, and on and on. But there are little things that are never mentioned because they don't really make a big deal about it.

Examples from my own experience. I was watching the queue at another gate as people were preparing to board. People shift restlessly in one place, look at the door to the gate, and try to occupy themselves before getting on. Boarding and exiting a plane can be a little stressful. A flight attendant appeared at the gate and made this announcement. "Folks, a young man on the incoming flight couldn't handle the turbulence, if you know what I mean. Right now, you don't want to get on that plane, believe me. But our crews are working to clean it up and we'll be boarding very shortly." At that moment a baby started crying. The attendant added, "I know just how you feel. That's how I felt when I saw that mess." Everyone in the queue and in the boarding area started laughing. No one was anxious about getting on the plane anymore, and everyone relaxed.

My own flight was delayed getting in and I had a tight connection. I wasn't worried about catching the plane because I knew Southwest would hold the plane until all the stragglers were on board. I had checked luggage so I wondered about my luggage. A customer in the seat in front of me was talking on his cell phone. "I made it, but there's no way the bags are going to make it." At that moment the flight attendant made this announcement. "We're going to hold this flight until all the bags from our connecting flights have been loaded, then we'll be on our way." Rather than creating the hassle of putting the bags on a later flight and letting customer service in the airport deal with it, Southwest chooses to hold a flight and get all the bags on the flight. Huge win.

How do they do this? They think about customers, and what customers worry about. They know that people want information about boarding and delays and bags and dozens of different things. So they arrange some of their processes for the benefit of customers and their needs for information. These incidents happen too often and too predictably to just be happy accidents. They are doing real experience design. They're training and inspiring (and probably rewarding) employees to do things right.

All companies pay lip service to being customer focused. Southwest really gets it, and it shows up on the bottom line.

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