Your Suckiness is An Opportunity

I am amazed. I just wrote a post yesterday about a few select companies that I love. I am impressed by their movement to interact with customers more as humans, and less like credit card transactions. They have identified the sucky experience that many customers face with other companies offering their same line of products, and improved this, giving themselves the edge of customer service.

I had a death in my family this week. Of course, the last minute flight home for the funeral was through the roof. When I called Southwest and asked for a bereavement fare, I was harshly rebuffed: “NO, we don’t have anything like that” the flight rep said. Any condolence? Compassion? Empathy? Zero.

But this post is not just about how I was a fan of Southwest for 10 years, and now see them through cynical eyes. Instead, this post is about what Southwest could have done differently and how they should learn from their FAILs to improve – ie: let crappy be their muse. Because here is the thing. When someone faces a major loss in their family, they are emotional, flustered, vulnerable, and extremely busy. In other words, the experiences they have in dealing with customer service during this process is that much more heightened. This is a PERFECT opportunity for a company to garner real trust, and loyalty. Or garner cynicism, frustration, and all possible future avoidance.

3 Things Southwest Could Have Done Differently:

1. Offer a bereavement fare. Like I already mentioned, because of heightened emotions, you can either win over a customer, or ward them off. Of all the things Southwest claims to do – happy, smiling employees, singing happy birthday to the 90 year old man on his flight, THIS ONE is perhaps the biggest opportunity to make the customer feel better. Again, during this time, people are at wits end…you have a huge opportunity to secure a customer for life here.

2. Create a smooth process for dealing with this situation. These customers are under a lot of stress, and usually very short on time. Fluidity is KEY.

3. Train employees to express sympathy…or better yet, just hire empathetic employees. If you are unable to offer lower fares, at the very least, you can TRAIN employees to be sympathetic. The person I talked to on the phone today was wretched. I was thinking: “Are you a robot?” I just lost a family member. Have you no sympathetic bone in your body? DO NOT make this hit or miss. This should be MANDATORY. Compassion is free. That is the least you can offer.

BONUS: As companies move towards improving their customer service experience – – please, NO TALK. DO. If this was just one isolated event, I’d chalk it up to “well, I just dealt with one unfortunately rude employee. But the more I talk to others, the more I realize this is a common experience.

I read Tony Hseigh’s book this weekend, cover to cover: Delivery Happiness. He is the founder and CEO of Zappos. If cutting corners, only considering the immediate bottom line, and overlooking the big picture is the only way to be successful, how is it that he runs a $1 billion + company? All on the foundation of delivering amazing, WOW customer service? That’s right. You can deliver amazing customer service and use this as your differentiator with others in the industry. Might be worth sticking to, Southwest…

I hope we all start to wake up and smell the coffee and realize that if we help those around us solve their problems, and be compassionate in the process, YOU and your organization will do better in the long run.

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Matt Supert

Not to be cynical, but how does Southwest then “solidify” the bereavement fee process so people don’t take advantage of it? As soon as they implement any sort of vetting process it will immediately become burdensome to the people who desire it most.

Ian Lucas

Back in 1996, , in the UK, my father died from a fast moving illness. My wife and 5 month-old son were able to get to see him 27 hours before he died. We flew British Airways on a newly inaugurated route that had a special introductory fare for a 4 day (weekend) return trip. I stayed on in the UK with my stepmother, brother and sister to help do all the many things that suddenly become necessary in those circumstances. Upon taking my wife and son back to the airport for their scheduled return, I asked BA if I could change just my own return date because of the situation. Without a moments’ hesitation the agent said “of course, when would you like to go back to Toronto?”. No questions asked, no surcharges, just real empathy and consideration.

As you can imagine, that has left a permanent impression on me, and I take BA whenever I return to the UK, and praise BA to anyone who will listen. At that time BA was probably ten times the size of Southwest Airlines, but that response said everything about the importance of the Customer. It’s a culture trait that always starts at the top and can be reflected at every level in the Organization. Show me the character of an established CEO or CAO and I think I can accurately predict what sort of Customer interaction to expect with his or her people.

Deb Green

I love flying Southwest, but I’ll tell you, I don’t know if I’d ever fly THE low cost airline ever again in light of this story and the story of a colleague – she recently flew Southwest with her 5 year old and her 5 month old baby. After getting to the gate, she was charged for a seat because she didn’t bring her child’s birth certificate to validate he was under 2 years old. Seriously? No other airline has that hardline of a policy. Even if Southwest has it on their website, it’s certainly not even fine print information they put on the site as you’re purchasing tickets and declaring lap infants. Like flying with children isn’t stressful enough. WTG Southwest.

Carol Davison

Matt, I thought of the same question.

Deb, I preusme that Southwest’s attendents can tell a 5 month old from a two year old. Where is the judgement/sense of judgement/responsibility?

On the other hand when waiting for a flight I developed a migraine and asked the attendent for special seating. He gave it to me. I asked for his name and his supervisor’s phone to praise him. The attendent said it wouldn’t make a difference if I said anything. I forgot the name of the airline.

Bill Bott

One aspect of this that I think should put us all on guard is the ‘why’ behind the rudeness. The operator probably gets asked this question 10 times a day. They are sick of people asking and probably feels like if they just read the website they’d know Southwest doesn’t do that. What they forgot is that, as customers, we may only deal with a situation like this once or twice in a decade – we ar not familiar with the policies of sourthwest and really don’t care about them, we simply need to get home.

Translate it to government… How may times do we get frustrated our customers don’t know our procedures and treat them poorly. Like make them wait in line over an hour for a vehicle registration only to be told to go home and get more documentation… Feeling any sympathy there?

I’m not excusing the behavior, an,”I’m sorry for your loss, but we dot offer that, I can get you home for ,$________” would have probably kept their name out of the blog. For us, the same empathy with our customers would probably help our reputation and keep us out of the jokes.

Lauren Modeen

Thanks to all of you for your empathy, smarts, and input here. Bill – you are 100% right. A few reassuring, helpful words would make a huge difference. For airlines, government, and just about anyone, considering we are all in customer service at some time or another.