Posted June 20, 2017
At a time when the airline industry has been plagued by one PR disaster after another, it may come as a surprise to learn that airline customer satisfaction has actually reached its highest level ever, according to JD Power.
Each year, the global marketing company releases a report ranking customer satisfaction for North American airlines based on a number of factors, including cost and fees, in-flight services, the check-in process, reservations and more.
One carrier to thank for the impressive trend upward is Southwest Airlines, who took the top spot for customer satisfaction among the low-cost airlines for 2017.
Southwest Airlines has built its impressive brand around being different from the norm, offering a personable and friendly service to customers during even the most difficult times. We asked Rob Hahn, customer-relations business consultant at Southwest Airlines, to share some of the secrets of how the company continues to use a great customer experience to drive overall business success.
Q: How would Southwest describe its brand character?
A: Our company purpose is to connect people to what is important in their lives through friendly, reliable low-cost air travel. That’s in the back of our minds as we’re serving our customers each and every day.
Q: How does Southwest set a standard tone for communication?
A: We want to have a fun-loving attitude instead of a stiff corporate structure when we’re interacting with our customers. [It’s about] having a conversation with them versus telling them, “Here’s the policy, here’s the information.”
Q: How does Southwest empower employees to take control when difficult situations arise?
A: In the airline industry, there are so many things that could go wrong — or so many things that could go well — during a travel experience. When [our employees] are helping a customer, they look at how they can make things right, and make it a win for the company.
We give them tools to make those decisions on their own. Our customer relation representatives — social or phone — are trained on all of our systems. They are the escalation points and can handle anything that a customer throws our way. We really try to be that one-stop shop where we can handle the customers in a hurry and we don’t have to send them to another team or another department. We train each of our representatives on our systems, our policies, how we speak to our customers, and on the different channels through which we interact with them.
Q: What’s your strategy for dealing with the inevitable challenges, delays and frustration that occur during travel?
A: Regardless of the situation, the first thing you want to do is be transparent with the customer and let them know what’s going on and show them what we’re trying to do to fix it.
During a tech outage [last July], our VP of communications was doing Facebook Live chats. We had a live running blog with updates on what was happening. In this case, social media played a big role for us get the word out about what we were doing.
That was a really big win, though it was a challenging situation.
Q: In a challenging situation like the outage, how does Southwest keep from transferring passenger stress to staff?
A: I think a lot of it is in the way we hire. We hire folks who are passionate about providing customer service. They know that, in customer service, sometimes there are upset customers. Finding that right employee, who really has a passion to create resolutions for that customer, I think that really helps.
We all know that customers are not frustrated with us, but with the situation. So it’s important to look beyond that frustration and how can we fix the situation for them.
Q: Is there a point when Southwest will choose to disengage with a customer?
A: We [always] try to work with the customer. People can be very heated, but our folks are very good at getting to the root of their problem so we can get it fixed. We don’t have anything where we say, “O.K. we’re cutting the customer off.”
If there is something that feels like a road block that [our staff] can’t get through, then we can escalate it to a supervisor or another leader to try to help the customer. But we’re here to help, so we really want to stay with the customer and get their situation solved.
Q: How important is a sense of humor when communicating with customers?
A: A fun-loving attitude is one of our principles. We encourage employees to not take themselves too seriously; to have fun with our customers and with fellow employees. That’s really unique about our company and about all of our employees.
For example, when our flight attendants do their safety briefings — there are certain regulatory requirements on safety briefings — but besides those requirements they’ll crack jokes and sing songs, which gets the customers’ attention. There are a lot of different things that are normal airline-industry jargon and we can find a way to make them more fun. We give our employees the choice to do that, if they want to.
We [want to have] fun with our customers and have conversations that are not just a boring back-and-forth. It’s about having that Southwest heart and leaving customers feeling good about their experience.