Southwest Airlines made the decision to apologize even before customers complain.
Colleen Barrett, president emeritus of Southwest Airlines, told me, “We knew from day one that we wanted to be in the customer service business. The business we were in just happened to provide airline transportation.”
Colleen’s notion is this: if you want to be best in customer service, then you’ve got to be proactive about it. You can’t wait for customers to tell you about your problems. You’ve got to be out ahead of them every day. And that includes when you make a mistake. So Colleen established a manifesto and a group dedicated to what Southwest calls “Proactive Customer Service.”
Southwest has turned the process for “saying sorry” into a core competency of their business. Each morning, a “MOM” (Morning Overview Meeting) is convened. The people who run the airline’s operations, its meteorologist, and Proactive Customer Service team members review the flights of the previous day for delays, issues, and service glitches. They get a read on the weather that might have created passenger delays and challenges to airports. Then the Proactive Customer Service team goes to work.
They imagine themselves as passengers and decide which events warrant an apology, a hand of human kindness from Southwest. Depending on the severity of the situation, this ranges from offering the passenger’s next flight for free to a percentage off in the form of a LUV voucher. All come with a hand-signed, personalized letter customized to the experience the customer encountered. No mass produced “sorry” letter allowed here!
Let’s say you just landed. The flight experience started out grandly but quickly soured. Checking in for your flight was pleasant, you found the seat you wanted and were able to stow your carry-on luggage. But there were delays taking off. Then weather in Chicago and a missed connection. You finally set foot into your home after 2 o’clock in the morning. The next day a letter from Southwest Airlines arrives . . . with a humble apology and genuine explanation, a promise to improve, and a gesture to make it up to you. You had just begun thinking about how to voice your frustration when you open the letter that stops you dead in your tracks . . . with amazement . . . with appreciation. Some customers who have experienced this even say . . . with glee.
Who sent that letter? Surely it’s some machine-generated form letter, you might be thinking. Not a chance. What you’ve received is a personal missive crafted by a member of the Proactive Customer Service Team. Any thought of changing carriers quickly vanishes from the customer’s mind. “I LOVE Southwest!” is what takes its place. Magic.
Being proactive with an apology and a resolution for bad experiences is good business for Southwest. The sales force that Southwest Airlines creates in the 50,000 customers they amaze every year with these gestures has a return on investment that far exceeds the number of family members, friends, and colleagues who they compel to try this airline with the human touch.
Can you form a proactive team to do what Southwest does?