Southwest’s Customer Management (Pt 2): Keys to Delivering the Unexpected "Wows"

In part one of Stephen Blanchette’s interview with Fred Taylor, the Southwest Airlines proactive customer service manager shared why and how his organization preemptively engages those customers who endured less than stellar experiences.

But while strategies like the Southwest proactive customer care initiative have helped solidify the airline as best-in-class, a customer-centric organization cannot stop its efforts just because it moved to the top of the heap. If it wants to retain its image of customer management excellence, it must find ways to consistently "wow" its customers.

In part two, Taylor shares Southwest’s reaction to the notion of perpetually wowing customers, and he shares how the organization has been mobilized to consistently improve the customer experience.

Question: Itseems to me that when you consistently create those wow experiences, with time your customers would simply come to expect the wows and then they’re no longer the wows they used to be. Do you find that you have to continually find new ways to raise the bar to make the wows even bigger?

Answer: We’ve received so much media attention from our proactive communication approach, but we never ourselves set a formal expectation with customers. So I think the fact that we don’t do that means that we continue to be able to exceed the customers’ expectations. If there ever comes a point where what we do becomes expected, then we’ll have to change what we’re doing. I’m surprised that we continue to get letters from our customers that thank us saying "I can’t believe you do this. It wasn’t necessary but wow, thanks for doing it." After 40 years, there’s not one day that goes by when we don’t get letters like that.

I remember Colleen Barrett, our president emeritus, telling a group of pilots "Many of the customers that you encounter have made Southwest part of their life. They fly with us like we’re their taxicab from city to city and when they’re deplaning and you’re standing outside the cockpit door and they walk up to you and tell you what they liked or didn’t like about the flight, you need to take that to heart and know that this person is speaking to you like you are one of their family members. Take it to heart and think about it from the customer’s point of view because it means that much to them."

Question: Can you give me an example of the Southwest brand come to life?

Answer: A good example is how our people continuously look for ways to ‘go above and beyond’ for customers – whether it’s when they forget their bag, or run out of a medicine, or are super hungry and just want a bite to eat – our employees always seem to figure out a way to rise above and go outside of what they normally do to provide a convenience for our customers when they least expect it. And I think it’s those unexpected wows that make people want to come back to Southwest. We always look for opportunities to recognize the creativity of employees who create those kinds of stories.

Question: How do you share those stories within the company? Is there a mechanism for doing that?

Answer: Yeah, as soon as someone does a good deed for a customer, then the commendation process starts at all levels. We inform the leadership group for whom they are employed and to their regional director too. And then, depending on what the employee did, they’ll either get a personal letter of recognition from our CEO or President – and they will most certainly receive recognition from their department leader. And if someone really goes out of their way for a customer, they get put into consideration for a "Winning Spirit" award or if they’re really doing a great job for a quarter, they might get the "Employee of the Quarter" award.

Question: A lot of organizations find it necessary to create financial incentives to encourage the right kind of behavior. Is that something that you do at Southwest as well?

Answer: I don’t think that a financial incentive is going to make someone do something that isn’t built into their own DNA. It might encourage them a little but ultimately it’s not the right way to motivate behavior. In my opinion, financial incentives are good rewards for hard work but I don’t think they’re good motivators.

Question: So what are the other ways you go about empowering employees and motivating the right kinds of behavior?

Answer: What I believe is important in terms of empowering employees – once we have hired the right people – is that it’s their leadership’s responsibility to empower them. And that comes down to trust. It’s making sure the leaders have trust and faith in their employees to do the job they have been hired to do. The leader’s responsibility is also to motivate them and to make sure their employees know they’re empowered and they’re trusted to go out and do their jobs and that there’s real benefit to going above and beyond for the customers. And then supporting them by providing them with the coaching and feedback that they need to be successful. So that empowerment is ultimately the responsibility of the leaders of this company and of every department. Trust, motivation and support are the keys.

Question: Is there a level of financial empowerment that employees are given that enables them to do what it takes to make sure customers are happy?

Answer: There are some departments that need more guidance than others especially in the context to how much access they have to the actual facts. You don’t want to inadvertently put an employee in an awkward situation because they don’t have access the accurate information. That’s when you end up giving away a refund when that refund wasn’t necessary.

But to me, it’s not a matter of giving the employee a $150 and saying that is all they can give away. Rather, it’s about trusting the employee and encouraging them to use their good judgment to make decisions. Here are some guiding principles to help you make an informed decision – now go and do that.

It’s also important to let employees know that they’re not going to be criticized or punished for making a decision that could have been made differently. But they will get some feedback on how they can make a better decision the next time.

I always tell my team the following: Unless you jeopardize the safety, security or integrity of your other team members, the rest is up to you. Outside of that, rules and guidelines are starting points. They’re there to help you. There is red tape – we operate in a highly regulated industry and there are many things we have to comply with but that doesn’t mean we can’t be colorful in how we get it done.

Question: What about the idea that ‘the customer is always right’? How’s that viewed inside Southwest?

Answer: We don’t put a lot of stock in that. We can understand why that might have been said a long time ago – I believe it came from a department store business. We don’t buy into that because people can misbehave and be downright mean. And we don’t support bad behavior. We don’t support customers who try to abuse our employees or employees who abuse other employees. If customers are misbehaving and get out of line, we are not going to apologize for that. The customer isn’t always right but it doesn’t mean that when we make a mistake or something bad happens that wasn’t necessarily our fault that we can’t say we’re sorry for it. We’re sorry when our customers have had a bad experience in general. Period. Even though we didn’t cause it or even if the customer is having a personal bad day but what can we do to make it better. And if there’s nothing that we can do because a customer is so aggravated then they either need to go some place else or try another carrier.

Question: Thanks for a very informative and inspiring interview, Fred. Before we wrap, I’ve got one final question: what inspires you to keep doing what you do at Southwest?

Answer: For me, first what is most motivating is definitely the opportunity of doing something good – for team members, for my department, for the company, or for our customers. At Southwest, there’s always lots of opportunity to do that. I always tell my team that if they can do one good thing for a customer each day that makes a difference in their lives, they’ll have made a customer for life and they’ll feel good about themselves – no matter how rough their day was.

And it’s about being part of a ‘movement’ too. When you’re part of a team, a department or a company that strives to make a difference – not just for our company or for our industry – it’s much more motivating and empowering than just punching a clock or working on an assembly line. That’s what really motivates me to want to do more.

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Stephen Blanchette is the founding Principal of LeapQ, a Munich-based consultancy focused on business and brand strategic integration. He blogs regularly at