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Updated Apr 10, 2024

Southwest Airlines: A Case Study in Great Customer Service

The airline giant's reputation for exceptional customer service and employee happiness is crucial to its ongoing success.

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Written By: Sean PeekSenior Analyst & Expert on Business Ownership
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Southwest Airlines serves over 126 million passengers each year, provides service to 121 airports across 11 countries and has maintained its nearly 72,000-employee roster with no involuntary furloughs or layoffs in its history. In addition to its commercial and financial success, Southwest Airlines is known for its excellent customer service. Southwest has built an impeccable reputation by putting customers first and ensuring its 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. We’ll explain why Southwest is so successful as a company and a customer service provider to help other businesses understand and implement its tenets. 

Southwest treats its employees well

Great customer service starts with happy employees. Southwest treats its employees well by backing individual employees’ decisions and providing everyone with quality employee benefits. For example, the company offers a 401(k) plan and matches contributions dollar-for-dollar up to 9.3 percent of the employee’s eligible earnings. It also offers a profit-sharing plan, an employee stock purchase plan, health and well-being rewards, as well as quality medical, vision and dental coverage.

In addition to benefits, Southwest also encourages professional development through in-person and online classes, mentorship programs, and even a Career Mobility Center that supports internal career advancement through advisement sessions and interview prep resources. The company also prioritizes community outreach, encouraging and incentivizing employees to give back to causes that matter to them.

Bottom LineBottom line
Making employees brand advocates is your best defense against bad customer service.

Southwest makes excellent customer service its mission

According to a mission statement on Southwest’s 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.” 

Southwest outperforms competitors in customer service

In its last survey of the airline industry from 2018, the Temkin Group compared nine U.S. airlines on the quality of their customer experience – the sum of all a customer’s experiences and interactions 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.

The Temkin Group’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).

Southwest Airlines earned the highest score every year the Temkin Experience Ratings were published from 2011 to 2018, except for 2015. In the most recent rankings, the company received the highest score in the airline industry, 76 percent – 10 percentage points higher than the industry average score of 66 percent. 

Over the years, Southwest Airlines has maintained high ratings among customers, even amid a global pandemic and overall declines in passenger satisfaction. According to the 2023 J.D. Power North American Airline Satisfaction Study, Southwest ranked highest in customer satisfaction for a second consecutive year for the economy and basic economy segment.

How Southwest Airlines emphasizes the customer experience

Southwest Airlines takes the following crucial steps to prioritize the customer experience:

  • Southwest offers multiple avenues for customer support. Customer experience is no longer just an in-person interaction or a phone call. It’s now online, in live chat and more. In addition to multiple phone numbers for different customer service issues, Southwest offers live chat (via mobile app), email and a self-help resource center, allowing multiple touch points and opportunities to delight customers.
  • Southwest adapts to meet customers’ evolving expectations. The airline invested over $2 billion to improve the customer experience. From improved real-time travel communications to bag tracking to bolstered self-service options, Southwest proactively meets passenger needs to make traveling more convenient and comfortable.
  • Southwest empowers employees. Southwest takes care of its employees, which, in turn, helps employees take care of its customers. Providing robust financial and wellness benefits and ongoing career development allows Southwest’s team to perform at its best and effectively support its customers.
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Examining Southwest Airlines as a customer service case study can help other companies learn to provide a great customer experience and place customer service at the forefront of their mission and company culture.

How to provide excellent customer service

All businesses should strive to achieve Southwest’s exceptional customer service. However, many of its specific strategies are tailored to the airline industry and may not work for your organization. Here are a few additional methods any business can implement to give its customers the service they deserve.

1. Be responsive to issues.

Nothing is more frustrating than being put on hold for over an hour, especially if you’ve already paid for a product or service. Remember that your customer relationships don’t end after money has been exchanged. These relationships are long-term commitments that must be cultivated over time.

If you don’t have the time to answer calls all day, consider staffing your business with more agents or outsourcing customer service calls. Ensure all customer service reps and outsourced service agents use one of the best CRM software platforms to ensure consistency and informed help. You can also streamline your communication channels and preferences to accommodate as many customer inquiries as possible. For example, it’s easy to set up a chat feature or an FAQ page on your website to avoid being overwhelmed by calls. 

With so many options available to help your customers, there’s no excuse for leaving them 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 using X (formerly Twitter) as a customer support channel are great ways to stay in touch with your base.

A simple “thank you for thinking of us” when a customer tags 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.

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Use proven customer service metrics and KPIs like customer satisfaction scores, net promoter scores and customer effort scores to improve your overall customer service.

3. Get to know your customers.

Customers love a personalized experience because it makes them feel heard. However, to ensure the personalized experience stays positive, you should understand the customer’s wants and needs. Maintaining this mindset will help ensure the customer trusts you and your company in the long run.

Almost every customer service representative has some kind of script they must stick to, but there are opportunities to veer off-book and personalize the experience. You could ask customers what they’ve been up to lately or why they chose your company, or just find a way to make them laugh. If you’re willing to go that extra mile, it can be the difference between keeping a customer and losing them.

4. Keep a positive attitude.

When trying to keep a positive attitude toward the customer, it can help to inhabit a service persona. How you speak to your customers can sometimes be more important than what you say. This approach allows you to connect with the customer on an emotional level. You’ll understand their explicit needs and better understand their overall attitude toward you and the company. If you focus on positive thinking and a positive attitude, customers will likely respond in kind.

Danielle Fallon-O’Leary contributed to this article. 

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Written By: Sean PeekSenior Analyst & Expert on Business Ownership
Sean Peek co-founded and self-funded a small business that's grown to include more than a dozen dedicated team members. Over the years, he's become adept at navigating the intricacies of bootstrapping a new business, overseeing day-to-day operations, utilizing process automation to increase efficiencies and cut costs, and leading a small workforce. This journey has afforded him a profound understanding of the B2B landscape and the critical challenges business owners face as they start and grow their enterprises today. In addition to running his own business, Peek shares his firsthand experiences and vast knowledge to support fellow entrepreneurs, offering guidance on everything from business software to marketing strategies to HR management. In fact, his expertise has been featured in Entrepreneur, Inc. and Forbes and with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
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