I am on two weeks of back-to-back business travel. I fly Southwest Airlines, and in general, love their people and service.
However, even the best-of-the-best can have weak spots in their training and/or policies that cause a bad client experience.
Has that ever happened in your company?
Here is a snapshot of my experience flying Southwest over the past two weeks. I'm still flying them this week. Keep score of the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.
Tuesday, March 8: I arrive at the airport after facilitating a full-day workshop with an EO group. I am scheduled to fly from Charlotte, North Carolina to Los Angeles, California through Houston Hobby International Airport. I am notified via email that my flight from Houston to Los Angeles has been canceled due to weather.
I get in line at the gate to discuss options to get to Los Angeles because I am scheduled to lead three workshops at the XChange Solution Provider event the next day. The line is moving slow so I call Southwest on my phone while remaining in line.
After about 10-15 minutes, I reach someone by phone at Southwest Customer Service. He explains my only option is to fly to Houston that day, spend the night, and then Houston to Los Angeles the following day, arriving just before noon. My first session is at 1:30 PM so that cuts it kind of tight, but he says it is my only option. The Southwest guy confirms me on that flight. There is no added expense.
VOTE on my first Southwest Customer Service Experience: Was the Southwest Customer Service Phone Rep experience Good, Bad, or Ugly?
I still have to fly from Charlotte to Houston. After I get something to eat there is no longer a line at the customer service desk for my gate. I go talk with the guy. He says something like, "Oh, I was looking for you. You were one of only two people I was not able to confirm an alternative flight for."
This guy is positive, proactive, and respectful even though he has dealt with a lot of complaining people due to flight cancellations because of the weather.
I explained the flight I was given and asked if there were any alternatives. I was concerned I might not make it to the XChange event on time. He booked me on a nonstop flight out of Houston at 6 AM to Los Angeles. He also bumped me up to Business Class boarding at no cost because he saw that I had an Early Bird registration that would no longer be valid.
NOTE: It turned out the other Southwest Customer Service Rep, the one on the phone, had booked me on a flight that went through another city, but did not tell me.
VOTE on my second Southwest Customer Service Experience: Did the Southwest Customer Service Rep at my gate in Charlotte provide a Good, Bad, or Ugly experience?
Do you want to change your vote on the first guy?
The Charlotte experiences are now over. We don't have to talk about the cheap hotel I stayed at overnight on my own dime because the issue was weather-related. I do not blame Southwest Airlines for that cost. Weather problems are not their fault.
However the way an airline responds to travelers stranded by the weather is their responsibility. Any airline can look great when there are no problems. It is how an airline supports its customers when there are problems that define whether or not it is truly a great organization.
The same is true with your company and mine.
Let's move on...
Sunday, March 13: I am scheduled to fly to Providence, Rhode Island at 11:55 a.m. My flights leave from Oakland, go to Seattle, then Chicago Midway, and then land in Providence. Certainly not the best itinerary, but I try to keep airfare costs down for the sake of our clients.
I received an email before 8 AM saying my flights from Seattle to Chicago and Chicago to Providence are canceled due to weather. Online there are no other flights available that day. If I cannot fly out, then I miss a day of consulting with one of my favorite clients.
I call Southwest Airlines by phone. Their system gives me the option to have them call back. The estimated wait time is 35 minutes. I decide to stay on the line to make certain I do not miss their call and they do not call while my family is still sleeping.
Two hours and 58 minutes later a Southwest Customer Service Rep answers my phone call. That is not a typo. I have never waited that long on the phone for anyone. Nothing close. It was 2 HOURS and 58 MINUTES!
The woman who answered my call had a British accent and was very nice. I explained the situation. She empathized with my situation, but confirmed there were no other flights that day. I informed her because I could not go to Providence I now needed to go directly from Oakland to New York LaGuardia on Monday, March 14.
She explained their policy was that I could have a free ticket to go Oakland to Providence, but not to New York LaGuardia. I would now have to spend $200 more for that ticket although the distance is basically the same.
I asked her to appeal to her supervisor. She did, and was successful.
VOTE on my third Southwest Customer Service Experience: Did the Southwest Customer Service Rep (phone) provide a Good, Bad, or Ugly experience?
I did ask her if she could bump me to Business Class because I was B51 and B59 for boarding rather than my "A" status, but she said there was nothing she could do. Although I do not like this policy and think Southwest should change it, vote on how well she took care of me separate of this issue.
Monday, March 14: I arrive at the gate for my flight from Oakland to New York LaGuardia at 4:57 AM. Boarding begins at 5:30 AM. I get on the flight. I carry the second-to-last carry-on bag that gets to stay on the plane. After that all bags are checked.
In Denver I approach a woman at my gate to request that she upgrade me to Business Class because I'm worried I will have to check my bag. I briefly explained the situation. She could not care less. "$40..." was her response without any empathy. She even grimaced at my request.
Maybe she needs Dave's Charm School...?
VOTE on my fourth Southwest Customer Service Experience: Did the Southwest Customer Service Rep at my gate in Denver provide a Good, Bad, or Ugly experience?
And last but not least, to their credit Southwest did reply to an email I sent on Sunday, March 13 complaining about my 2 hour 58 minute wait on hold to speak with one of their customer service people. They replied promptly on Monday, March 14.
But do not be too quick to judge their response. Read their response below before you vote:
Thank you for contacting us. We apologize for this recent, less than ideal travel experience with Southwest Airlines on March 13, and we welcome the opportunity to respond.
I apologize that Flight #4552 was one of many flights that were cancelled due to the inclement weather in Chicago. Clear conditions would always be our choice for the sake of Customer goodwill and the cost to our operation when irregular operations ensue. When there is widespread, severe weather, the positioning of our aircraft and Crews across the country are affected, which causes additional challenges.
When a Customer wants to talk to us, we want to listen. We sincerely apologize that our hold times were long or if you received a busy signal when attempting to speak with an Agent by phone. We do everything possible to staff accordingly, and it seems that you attempted to contact us by phone when our call queue reached the limit. I am very sorry for your frustration, which is the last thing we want for one of our Customers to experience. Please know I have documented your feedback for our Senior Leaders via our monthly summary.
I am glad to see our Customer Service Representative made a one-time exception and reaccommodated you to New York today, March 14, at no additional cost. That said, we understand that irregular operations can be a frustrating experience, and we regret that you were unable to take advantage of the original boarding position associated with your EarlyBird Check-In purchase. I have requested a refund of $12.50 for the EarlyBird Check-In fee, which will be processed to the original form of payment within ten business days.
Clearly, you were disappointed with our service. We want to assure you that the overwhelming majority of our Customers depart our aircraft looking forward to their next Southwest flight. We hope that this experience has not permanently changed your feelings about Southwest Airlines. Please come fly with us again soon. We are confident that more favorable circumstances will prevail.
VOTE on my fifth Southwest Customer Service Experience: Did the Southwest Customer Service Rep who emailed me provide a Good, Bad, or Ugly experience?
My perception is this response is a series of copy-and-paste paragraphs of sample text to respond to customer complaints. It is too long. It lacks sincerity and honest empathy. It could be grammatically better. It basically tells me to "go pound rocks" and they do not care that I waited 2 HOURS and 58 MINUTES to speak with one of their customer service reps.
You can probably tell I am disappointed. I expect more from Southwest.
Please understand, I do not expect Southwest Airlines or any other organization including my own to be perfect (flawless). We are not. They are not. I could complain about other things at Southwest, but I appreciate the experience they try to deliver.
However all of us must be aware that as our companies grow, maintaining a positive, effective, and efficient company culture is ongoing work. I hope that Southwest Airlines catches these errors and works with these employees to better represent the spirit their airline stands for.
As leaders, we must do the same daily in our organizations.
By the way, just in case it is not clear, I still believe in Southwest Airlines and continue to fly them whenever possible.
P.S. Another thing to keep in mind is that even a great company like Southwest Airlines makes mistakes. Do not get too bent out of shape when you and/or your people have an "oops" moment. It happens. Keep practicing. Stay in the game. Keep building on your strengths. There are more points to score and competitions to win.
We have to change to stay ahead of the game and grow. I help leaders become better. We work on leadership skills and systems to hire, manage, develop, and retain top performers, plus company culture, sales management, and strategic marketing. Contact us if you, other leaders you know, and/or your company wants to improve.