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Southwest Airlines: A Case Study in Great Customer Service

business.com editorial staff
business.com editorial staff

Southwest Airlines' model of exceptional customer service can be extrapolated to fit the needs of almost any industry if you employ strategies that work for your business.

  • Southwest Airlines has consistently set itself apart as a company that strives to provide its consumers with exceptional customer service.
  • Southwest has built an impeccable reputation by putting customers first and by making sure their employees are content and financially secure.
  • This model of exceptional customer service can be extrapolated to fit the needs of almost any industry if you employ strategies that work for your business.   

Southwest Airlines serves 10.8 million passengers a month, provides service to 42 states, and hasn't seen a red balance sheet since the Nixon presidency.

In addition to its commercial and financial success, Southwest Airlines takes 10th place on the 2012 Customer Service Hall of Fame. To put that in perspective, the next airline on the list, United Airlines, holds spot No. 82.

How does Southwest manage to be so successful both as a company and a customer service provider?

Great customer service starts with happy employees

Southwest treats its employees well  by backing the decisions of individual employees as well as providing everyone with quality benefits.

Despite the fact that the U.S. doesn't mandate paid maternity leave, Southwest provides new parents with 12 weeks of paid leave.

In BrightScope's report of the 30 highest-rated 401(k) plans, Southwest Airlines topped the chart by matching 100% of what its pilots set aside for their retirement: up to 9.3% of their income. In 2011, Southwest contributed almost $94 million, or an average of 3.2% of each eligible employee's compensation, to the retirement accounts of its employees.

Your business: What makes your employees happy? Making employees brand advocates is your best defense against bad customer service.

It's part of the mission

According to its website, "The mission of Southwest Airlines is dedication to the highest quality of Customer Service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and Company Spirit." It dedicates its company decisions to fulfilling that mission, with Southwest's customer service earning a 33.9% "excellent" rating, and only 3.3% said its service was "poor."

In comparison to the other airlines on the list:

  • At No. 82 on the list, United earned 19.7% for "excellent" customer service versus 5.1% for "poor" service.
  • At No. 84, American Airlines earned 18.9% for "excellent" service and 6.4% for "poor" service.
  • At No. 90, Delta earned 17.7% for "excellent" service and 10.2% for "poor" service.
  • At No. 100, US Airways earned 13.6% for "excellent" customer service and 7.5% for "poor" service.

Of particular note: only Southwest has a mission statement posted prominently on its website.

Your business: How do you stack up against your competitors? Find what you do best and leverage that for all your customers to see. 

Impeccable customer service and customer experience

A survey by the Temkin Group compared nine U.S. airlines on the quality of their customer experience – the sum of all experiences and interactions a customer has with a brand. The strategy of focusing on customer experience is built around the needs of the individual customer over the lifetime of the customer-brand relationship.

Temkin's survey ranked each airline on the criteria of functionality (how well experiences meet customer needs), accessibility (how easy it is for customers to do what they want to do) and emotion (how customers feel about the experience).

  • For overall customer experience, Southwest and Alaska Airlines tied the top spot at 68%, eight points above the average rating for the airline industry as a whole. In comparison, US Airways earned a rating of just 45% and was the lowest-ranked company in the complete survey of 246 companies in 19 industries.

  • Broken down by criteria, Southwest led the pack in functionality and accessibility, while Alaska Airlines took the top spot for emotion, meaning Alaska made customers feel good, but Southwest fulfilled their needs and goals.

Your business: Customer experience is no longer a phone call. It's now online, in live chat and more. Each touch is specific to that customer, and you want to treat each individual reaction as such. 

Examining Southwest Airlines as a case study for customer service provides valuable implications for how other companies can provide a similar experience for their own customers. Southwest takes care of its employees, which, in turn, helps employees take care of its customers.

It places customer service at the forefront of its mission and company culture. On a more practical level, it works to provide customers with an experience that fulfills their needs and makes it easy for them to accomplish their goals with the company. 

Additional ways to provide excellent customer service

Southwest's exceptional level of customer service is a quality that all businesses should strive to achieve. However, many of its strategies are tailored to the airline industry and may not work for your business. Here are a few additional methods you can employ in your business to ensure that your customers get the service they deserve. 

1. Be responsive to issues.

There is nothing more frustrating than being put on hold for over an hour, especially if you've already paid for a good or service. Remember that your relationships with your customers don't end when the money has been exchanged – it should be thought of as a long-term commitment that must be cultivated over time. 

If you don't have the time to answer calls all day, consider hiring a few more employees or outsourcing your customer service calls. Modern technology allows for so many different forms of communication; it's easy to set up a chat feature or a FAQs page on your website if you want to avoid being overwhelmed by calls. There are so many options available; there is no excuse for leaving your customer base in the dark when they have an issue. 

2. Communicate beyond complaints.

Responding to problems swiftly is vital to maintaining a high level of customer service, but communicating with your audience shouldn't stop there. Starting a weekly email newsletter or replying to customer tweets are great ways to stay in touch with your base. 

A simple "thank you for thinking of us" when a customer @'s your brand on social media can go a long way. It's a simple, cost-free measure to set your business apart as one that truly cares about customer service.

Image Credit: Kritchanut / Getty Images
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