Getting Customer Service Right on the Cheap

AdamCole - cropped

Adam Cole (B. Math, I.S.P., ITCP, PMP)



My wife and two young daughters recently took a last minute trip to visit friends in North Carolina. They flew via Southwest Airlines. Southwest was the first (successful) discount airline ,  and continues to operate a no-frills operation to this day. What is taken for granted on other airlines is lacking on Southwest including reserved/assigned seating (yup, seating is a free for all; better show up earlier), meals (pack your own lunch), in-flight movies and TV (you are welcome to bring your own device), get the picture. And yet, my three fine ladies loved their experience!

I should point out here that my eldest daughter was spoiled by her grandparents the month before with a first-class trip to France; one would think her flying expectations set the bar impossibly high for Southwest.

How and why can a discount, no-frills airline successfully compete with premium, first-class service???

Customer service.

This is important, increasingly so as our world becomes flatter, so indulge me while I repeat...

Customer service.

The Southwest airplane personnel have a great sense of humour. They have a lot of fun with their jobs, and that is contagious in a powerful way. When I picked up my family the first thing they told me was about their flight. I wasn't immediately regaled with stories of reuniting with best friends, or swimming in the ocean - a first for my youngest, or surprisingly being in the same city as President Obama. Apparently the most exciting experience was their discount flight. They couldn't get over the many humorous little interactions; from the captain joking upon touching down, "Phew! [pause] It was a pleasure serving most of you. [pause] Alright, all of you. Now get your things and get out!", to the flight attendants giving a basket of pretzels to two young overly-energetic boys to hand out, or a flight attendant announcing the following four legs of the flight and then suggesting that any of the passengers with them until the plane's final destination better have received a really good discount.

Sadly there are many (far too many) customer experience stories to the contrary to contrast this with.

Yet look at the cost-benefit of good customer service. Southwest now has three new loyal customers who will go forth and evangelize the brand -- and this cost them far less than a lousy little box lunch or a seat back entertainment system; and, the impact is far, far higher. What a brilliant business model. (Anyone at Air Canada reading this?)

In my career I have worked with multiple healthcare call centers and CRM environments. It is amazing how customers (patients, doctors) respond differently to motivated and engaged staff. The costs of motivating and training your staff to be personable, humorous, and pleasant is so little relative to the returns. Why doesn't every company get it?