MARC GUNTHER, one of the leading observers these days of corporate social responsibility, talks in a recent blog post about companies' "ethic of service—to their employees, their customers and their shareholders" and how that translates into loyalty from those same critical groups of stakeholders.
"I’m willing to bet that Southwest [Airlines] customers are less grumpy about flight delays than those on United or Delta because they have a sense that the company wants to treat them right," writes Gunther, who profiled Southwest's "ethic of service" in his 2004 book, Faith and Fortune: How Compassionate Capitalism is Transforming American Business.
Funny he should mention that, because just a week ago I was impressed yet again by how much better Southwest is at accommodating me, the customer, so much more than many of companies (not just airlines) I interact with as a consumer of their goods or services.
This time I was calling to rebook a flight because of some changes in my own schedule. That's something we have been conditioned by the other airlines to avoid like the plague, what with their pricey change fees and processes that are about as clear and simple as the federal tax code.
Not only does Southwest allow you to make changes easily and without penalty, get this: when I called Southwest to make the change (unfortunately, their Web site didn't allow me to do it by myself online, but I'd rather talk to a real person anyway), a recorded voice told me that, because their people were busy with other customers, there would be a delay of five to eight minutes. Nothing unusual about that; this is par for the course in customer service land these days.
But then the voice said they could call me back when my turn came up. I would not lose my place in the queue. So long as I punched in my number and stuck by that phone, I could hang up and go about my life until they were ready for me.
I tried it, and it worked! True to their promise, a real person called me back in about five or six minutes. The first thing I told her was how grateful I was for this feature and how much I love Southwest for treating me like a human being. She sounded almost startled by how effusively I praised her company. So not only was my transaction with her good for me, she wasn't dealing with a crabby, cursing customer, which must be a drag for anyone on her end of the line.
Gunther's right that even when Southwest has done some things that I normally find annoying (and for all the many times I've been on Southwest, I can only remember two), I'm much more forgiving than I am with other airlines and other companies I patronize from time to time -- phone companies, retailers, computer companies, cable TV providers, etc. From their impenetrable customer service systems on the phone or online to their tendency to bounce you from one customer service representative to the other (none of whom admit to being responsible for addressing your problem) to their inability to live up to their promise (as Southwest did) to show up at your house or deliver what you want within the timeframe they set for themselves, these companies have worn most of us consumers down.
We have come to expect lousy customer service and, with pounding hearts and clenched teeth, look forward to settling a disputed invoice, changing a ticket, getting the insurance company to pay for a claim or receiving technical assistance for rebooting our cable boxes about as much as we would getting into a car accident. We feel out of control, enraged, ripped off and let down.
I'm obviously not the only one to notice how relatively pleasant it is to deal with Southwest -- what with their no-nonsense approach to price and booking, their ingenious and fair way of boarding passengers at the gate to their good prices, all of which gives one the impression that the really do have the customer in mind and are not forcing the customer conform with inscrutable and inconvenient rules. As Scott McCartney reported recently in the Wall Street Journal, an independent customer satisfaction survey "covering the first quarter of this year, puts Southwest Airlines as the highest scoring passenger carrier. Southwest’s score rose 3% from the same period last year to 81 out of 100—a record for the airline industry. Southwest has continued to offer value and reliability, and has pushed its product into new areas across the country. Maybe that accounts for the gains – or perhaps Southwest’s decision to not charge customers for checking baggage."
(The good news for everyone, customers and airlines alike, is that, as McCartney adds, "customer satisfaction with airlines increased for the first time since 2003, according to the latest University of Michigan American Customer Satisfaction Index." But, "despite the gain, airlines remain one of the lowest scoring industries measured by the ACSI.")
As Gunther says, by treating its customers well, companies win the most valued prize: loyalty. Look at me; I carry a Southwest credit card, which gets me points for free flights on the airline, and I will go out of my way to book myself on Southwest, whether it's for personal or business travel. That's not often a hardship, as their fares are typically lower than others. I've found myself doing the same with other businesses that establish a more customer-friendly relationship with me, the customer -- for example, shoe stores, with real, old-fashioned shoe salesmen, who really know how to fit my fit into the right shoe, as opposed to the people at the discount stores whose only job is to point me to piles of boxes and ring up my sale.
Let's hope features like the call-back systems that I encountered recently with Southwest catches on and becomes the industry norm. And let's hope others, seeing how doing well by their customers, follow suit overall as well. At the moment, though, I feel the customer-service landscape is a scary place for most customers to tread. You've gotta wonder what the marketing geniuses are thinking and how they got us all into this state of affairs.