Southwest’s Giant Diss to Customers


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It really bummed us out when Southwest, an airline that’s always been such a rockstar about customer service and customer experience, totally blew it April 1st (of all days). The airline failed to communicate to its customers the full impact of a grounded plane that had a hole blown through its roof.

The airline smartly grounded the flight, en route from Phoenix to Sacramento, when a startlingly large and visible hole was spotted in the ceiling of the plane’s main cabin.

Ok, that’s a no-brainer. But where the airline company got stupid, is when it decided to keep its other passengers in the dark about the ripple effect the grounded plane had caused. That is, it suuuuper downplayed the fact that it canceled 252 flights the next day (Saturday) and delayed a whopping 1,044. And on Sunday, an additional 300 flights got canceled and nearly 999 more were delayed.

Instead, the airline decided to say nothing for the first 24 hours, and then late Sunday, when undoubtedly a significant number of passengers began expressing immense frustration, it finally post a woefully vague statement on its website that it was “experiencing relatively few flight delays and cancellations.” The “few” turned out to be 10 percent of its flights.

Southwest, what gives?

All it would have taken was a simple, clear, even straightforward statement on your website and and, hey, why not your Twitter feed giving passengers a heads up that the airline had some technical difficulties going on.

Airlines have struggled with a bad reputation for decades now, and customers expect airlines to be transparent, responding to their needs immediately and informing them of any important news. And it’s never been easier to share that important news (without having to cause mass pandemonium) thanks to Twitter feeds, company websites, and the ease of sending emails that keep customers posted on the latest news.

Even when you don’t have a major screwup on your plate, we got some tips for you on how you can always be transparent with your customers.

· Engage customers on their preferred channels (email, web, social media, chat, etc.). That is, if you see that your customers are all about the Twitter, then that’s the place you should focus your efforts, or at least make sure it’s a channel that isn’t missed. If emails have been your most successful venue for communication and transparency, then use that, and so on and so forth.

· Stay on top of all customer conversations with one unified support tool. We’re going to toot our own horn here for a second, but one thing we are really proud about here at Zendesk is our ability to respond to customers through a myriad of channels. Be it phone, email, Twitter, or Chat, we are able to respond and stay on top of all of our customers’ conversations, all within one tool.

· Also, remember that improving customer service efficiency doesn’t mean having to sacrifice personal touch. Don’t let your customers feel like mere cogs in the machine. A few words can go a long way toward personalizing your service.

Photo courtesy of BFS Man.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Tiffany Maleshefski
Tiffany Maleshefski is the editor of Zengage and brings more than 10 years of journalism and custom content experience to Zendesk's company blog. Prior to her tenure at Zendesk, she helped manage the custom content arm, where she helped a large number of corporate organizations develop original and innovative content for their company websites. Her work has appeared in eWeek, the San Francisco Examiner, San Francisco Magazine, Plenty, Strings, and Muso, among others.


  1. Hi in my book Bridges to the Customer’s Heart this is what i said about herbs notion that Southwest can fire unwanted customers.
    Bridge Fifty Seven

    Are customers always right? ''No they are not'', Kelleher snaps. Kelleher went on to say that carrying wrong passengers, and from the context of the discussion, those that abuse staff is "the biggest betrayals of your people”. In Kelleher's words " 'The customer is frequently wrong. We don't carry those sorts of customers. We write them and say, 'Fly somebody else. Don't abuse our people.' '' Tom Peters, writing in his The Pursuit of WOW!, recalling an interview with Herb Kelleher, the legendary founding chairman of Southwest Airlines.

    Southwest Airlines redefined how air traveling should be – no frills. I love Herb Kelleher for his no-nonsense management style and for all else that he stood for. Herb passionately loved his people, and the people of Southwest Airlines truly loved him. I am an Herb fanatic. I love his no-frills approach to air travel. In this one instance, however, I disagree with Herb. No customer is ever wrong. And as Tom would say, "PERIOD!” The customer may be mistaken in his perception or ideas. The customer may be frustrated, but our singular duty is to actively engage her and change that mistaken perception and end up having a happy and delighted customer. It bears to repeat that the customer who leaves his home and comes to your business premises to do business with you certainly wishes you well. Don't antagonize that customer.

    I believe that if you look very well at all the problems your company is facing you will discover that 100 per cent of the time, they are self-inflicted. Take the case of an airline. Your advertisement may say your departure is 100 per cent on schedule, all your aircraft are equipped with state-of-the-art in-flight entertainment and your cuisine is the best the world has to offer. And the customer reaches his destination and discovers that his baggage has been sent elsewhere or is missing altogether. Should the customer go home and be happy because you gave him such terrific in-flight film and three course meal?

    Allow the customer to complain. It's good for you to know what you can improve immediately. If you train your people well, they will be able to handle the situation professionally. Sometimes all that is required is to say 'sorry'. No customer is dispensable. How would it feel to open your doors for business and for one full day no customer showed up and you received no telephone call? Do you feel happy because your office floors have marble tiles and all your staff have the latest iMac computers? Don't kid yourself. The equation is simple: No customer = No Sales = No Business. It's that simple. That is why Toyota's philosophy as we earlier pointed out is '' Customer first, dealer second, company third.'' That is why Toyota will ever remain one of the greatest companies on earth or the entire universe!

  2. When I heard about the problem with the one plane I just assumed Southwest would be telling all their customers. They are SO renowned for top notch customer communication – even using social media and more. I’m shocked to realize they weren’t communicating right away.

    “What gives” is exactly right. Odd.


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