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7 lessons you can learn from Southwest Airlines

Henry Elliss
Henry Elliss
Managing Director
17 February 2010

ksmithtw11-01-08If you haven’t been following the ‘buzz’ on Twitter in the past few days, you may have missed what has become the social media story of the week, namely Director Kevin Smith’s experiences with the US airline Southwest. As it’s been immensely well covered, I won’t waste too much time giving you the background – if you want to read a fair summary, your best bet is to read Smith’s blog (possibly not safe for work… but only if you read it out loud!) or better still, listen to his podcast on the subject. In a nutshell though, Mr Smith was ejected from a Southwest Airlines flight for unspecified reasons, in what basically boiled down to a size issue – as one witty tweeter put it, Kevin Smith is now “Too fat for the sky”. Leaving aside the obvious debate as to whether he is (trust me, he isn’t) or what the policy on this should be, the most interesting thing for me has been watching how Southwest Airlines have dealt with the fallout from the situation. Namely: badly.

You don’t have to be a fan of Smith’s movies like I am to have heard of him, and if you’re a fellow twitter user then you will probably know that he’s on the large end of the scale (‘scuse the pun) when it comes to followers – as of the time of this blog being written, he has 1,669,654 followers, not to mention the number of hardcore fans who read his blog, download his weekly podcast or watch his many movies. So he’s not really a good target to test out a customer service strategy on. But saying that, from the evidence of this episode I’d say that Southwest may not even HAVE a strategy to test out. Here’s a few of the lessons you can learn from how Southwest (mis)handled the situation:

  • Have a consistent message – right from the moment Smith was ejected from the plane, he has had a number of different ‘explanations’ for what happened, from the flight attendant who said he was a safety issue, the guy ‘Eric’ who told him it had been handled badly, right down to the (one assumes) high-ranking manager Linda who called him up 2 days later. Admittedly it’s hard to have a consistent message in the heat of the moment, when you’ve not had a chance to ‘pool your thoughts’, but the moment Smith started venting on Twitter and the @SouthWestAir responded, they should have run with a consistent explanation. They didn’t.
  • If you have contentious policies, make sure everyone knows why – once again, the different explanations that Smith was given for his ejection highlighted the fact that nobody at the airline seemed quite sure on why the policy was in place, or even quite WHAT the policy was.
  • Deal with the situation quickly and professionally – In their original attempt at a blog resolving the issue, Southwest quite carelessly stated: “Mr. Smith originally purchased two Southwest seats on a flight from Oakland to Burbank – as he’s been known to do when traveling on Southwest.” Telling the world about Smith’s past purchasing habits is a REALLY bad move. Regardless of the fact that he can be very open and candid about ALL sorts of details of his life, making reference to something he has (privately) done before is really poor form.
  • Give an appropriate response to the size of the issue – Whilst Southwest should be commended for having a Twitter account in the first place, their initial ‘apology‘ tweets clearly underestimated the scale of Smith’s ire. It looks like they tried to move him over to an ‘offline’ conversation too – a move which seemed to cement Smith’s opinion that they were trying to hush him and brush the issue under the carpet. Again, bad move.
  • Try to admit when you might be wrong - throughout the entire affair (so far), and despite many different stories that were given, SouthWest have never once even hinted at the fact that their policy might be unfair, or even contentious. The latest blog from them once again pushes the corporate message, despite a completely different message being delivered to Smith personally on the phone.
  • Try not to bend the truth – many of the online respondees to Smith’s query referred to attempts at calling him, or claims that they weren’t able to reach him due to his voicemail inbox being full. Don’t ever go down the line of making lame excuses like this unless you can completely back them up with fact…
  • Don’t underestimate the power of the social masses – those 1.5 million followers can be a powerful force. You might be on Twitter, and have a blog, but don’t assume that makes you immune to other, even more social factions.

Whatever happened to “The customer is always right” anyway?

I’m sure there will be plenty of other lessons to be learnt from this situation by the time the fires have completely died down, but I thought it was worth highlighting a few of them while the wood is still smouldering, so to speak. If nothing else, hopefully a few other airlines and brands can learn from the situation…

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