Spirit’s Customer Service Debacle Teaches Several Business Lessons


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Spirit Airlines made it big in the news this past week, for two reasons. Unfortunately, it was for all the wrong reasons.

Spirit Airlines is known as a low-cost, no-frills airline. They charge extra fees, as many airlines do for baggage. They even charge for carry-on bags that go into the overhead compartment. More on that in a moment. First, the big PR nightmare for Spirit came when Jerry Meekins, a Vietnam veteran who was diagnosed with terminal cancer, asked for a refund because his doctor told him not to fly.

The response from the customer service rep at the airline was flat out, “No.” The rule is no refunds and that’s the rule. It’s company policy. Spirit CEO Ben Baldanza supported his employee and made it clear that he would not refund the $190.00 airfare. That was until Mr. Meekins went on a national public relationships campaign to get all veterans (and others) to boycott the airline. He appeared on national and local talk shows. He was interviewed for major publications. All he wanted was for Spirit to refund his money and take a closer look at their policy. He asked that each case be looked at individually.

Lesson One: Not all customers are the same. Sometimes a situation may need a closer look, regardless of policy. (I hate that word, policy!) Mr. Meekins was right. This was a reason that warranted a closer look. There will be times you have to say, “No.” However, there are times to show compassion and flexibility. This was one of them.

Lesson Two: Social media, or any kind of media for that matter, can be powerful. Realize that your customers can spread good and bad stories about your company in a very short time. A couple years ago Dave Carroll’s guitar was damaged by the baggage handlers at United Airlines. They refused to fix it so he wrote and video taped a song, “United You Broke My Guitar.” He put the recording on YouTube and it went “viral” with millions of people watching it. United eventually fixed his guitar. By the way, Spirit eventually refunded Mr. Meekins his money. They also donated $5,000.00 to his favorite charity.

Lesson Three: Apologize and react quickly. If you don’t, the situation can get out of hand.

Spirit’s Second PR Nightmare:

And, if all of that wasn’t enough, Spirit made headlines again with an announcement that they were increasing their carry-on baggage fees to $100 each way. That’s an extra $200 per roundtrip. If you read the policy (there’s that word again), you will learn that planning ahead can save you a few dollars.

Here’s my take: This may sound like I support $100 baggage fees. I don’t. Actually, a better way of saying this is, I won’t. However, this is the way that Spirit chooses to run their business. If you don’t like paying the fees, then don’t fly on the airline. You don’t have to complain to everyone. Just fly on a different airline and you will have the personal satisfaction of knowing you disagreed and did something about it. People who choose Spirit are doing so because of the low cost options. Just like any other airline, they should read the “rules” and understand the extra fees. This is the way they do business. If enough people don’t like the way they operate, they will either change or go out of business.

This reminds me of a speech presented by an executive at Southwest Airlines. As most people here in the United States know, Southwest doesn’t assign seats. One of the audience members said that they wouldn’t fly Southwest because he didn’t like that he couldn’t get an assigned seat or a first class upgrade. The executive’s answer was perfect. She said that Southwest isn’t for everyone, as much as they would like it to be. The good news is that their model is embraced by many happy and loyal customers – enough to make them one of the most profitable airlines in history.. While she is disappointed that this person wouldn’t fly on Southwest, she said she respected his decision and hopes that one day he will change his mind.

So, back to Spirit. While I don’t like Spirit’s $100 carry-on baggage fee, I’ll accept that it the way they choose to do business. But accepting doesn’t mean I’ll fly them on my next trip. I’d rather pay a little more for great service and be able to put luggage in the overhead at no charge.

Lesson: Know who your customers are and cater to them. You can’t be everything to everyone. Southwest Airlines doesn’t try to convert the passenger who wants a pre-assigned seat or a first class upgrade. Instead they focus on the customers that accept their way of doing business. Then they give them the best experience they can.

Read more:

Here’s a story from CBS that summarizes Spirit’s week of negative publicity:


Republished with author's permission from original post.

Shep Hyken
Shep Hyken, CSP, CPAE is the Chief Amazement Officer of Shepard Presentations. As a customer service speaker and expert, Shep works with companies who want to build loyal relationships with their customers and employees. He is a hall of fame speaker (National Speakers Association) and a New York Times and Wall Street Journal best-selling author.


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