Sunday, May 16, 2010

Southwest Airlines Lightened Weighty Issues

There’s no love from most airlines when it comes to slightly overweight luggage. The fees get slapped on even for a pound, unless the ticket agent takes pity. And that’s rare. Can you blame them with the price of oil, volcanic eruptions from Iceland and such? But, all airlines are not equal. Why is Southwest Airlines far more flexible than others?

Other airlines just don’t get customer loyalty the way Southwest Airlines does.

Our son’s “overweight” luggage fees in one month this year reached an all time high of almost $500.00 U.S. That’s not counting the cost of the tickets. Granted he’s a touring golf pro who criss-crosses the States with a bag of golf clubs plus his normal luggage in which he says he carries “his life”. But, no matter his efforts to economize, if a pound or three overweight he got “dinged”. Even when he was forced to stay overnight part way to his destination due to mechanical problems, the particular airline insisted on charging him. Again, this is not ten pounds overweight per piece of luggage but one to three pounds. You can imagine the customer experience at the ticket counter. Not much laughing going on.

Faced with the intractability of the airlines, our son vowed to re-examine every bit of his packing to get the weight down. He bought a bigger back pack (still within regulations) so that he could “carry on” his golf balls and shoes. He bought new luggage that “looked” lighter. He pared his clothes down and his toiletries. He weighed his luggage before going to the airport and thought he’d nailed it this time.

Despite his extensive travelling during his amateur golf years while at university and as a new pro, our son had never booked with Southwest Airlines. But, because of attractive prices and Southwest’s availability, he decided to give it a go. He was still almost a pound overweight for his golf clubs and his regular luggage. But SW waived overweight fees. Plus when he changed a flight a few days later, there were no change fees. Now that IS a new experience!

Customer loyalty is a deep experience of something not felt before.

The relief at having a reasonable ticket agent making sensible decisions was almost a shock. Customer loyalty? Our son is “in”. To seal his warm feelings for SW, he had David Holmes, a “rappin’ fight attendant, belting out the usually boring flight instructions.

Southwest Airlines excels at relationships.

Jody Hoffer Gittell, an assistant professor at Brandeis University studied Southwest Airlines in depth after 9/11. She wanted to better understand why it “has a consistent record of profitability and performance in a turbulent industry”. In her 2003 book, The Southwest Airlines Way, she explains that the differentiating factor between SW and other airlines is a focus on relationships: shared goals, shared knowledge, mutual respect, timely problem solving dialogue among employees and always “leaning toward the customer”. Other airlines have, for the most part, been unable to replicate this.

Quite frankly, I have expected the penny to drop since then and Southwest Airlines to succumb to the incessant turmoil and spiraling costs in the industry. SW hasn’t been without controversy, most recently when it booted out Kevin Smith, a filmmaker, because he was too fat for one seat. But, when Kevin, who has over a million followers tweeted his distress, the airline went overboard to fix matters with him through multiple tweets to him, an apologetic blog and some fence-mending on booking a flight.

How many customers did SW gain (versus lose) with the handling of this incident?

We are social beings and thrive or not on relationships. Southwest Airlines at the least understands this and strives to build bonds whenever it can. Individual employees at other airlines do so too. But they don’t quite have the strong culture supporting them as do employees at SW. In an imperfect world, focusing on relationships like teamwork and customized problem-solving on the front-line are not easy, especially when the bottom line is a constant worry (and some customers can be difficult).

Yet, ironically, the soft touch helps the bottom line.

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