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Southwest Airlines: A Case Study in Great Customer Service

Sean Peek
Sean Peek

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 serves over 11 million passengers a month, provides service to 45 states and hasn't seen a red balance sheet since the Nixon presidency. 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 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. In order to use these strategies, it is first important to understand how Southwest manages 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. For example, the company offers a 401(k) plan and match contributions dollar for dollar up to 9.3% of the employee’s eligible earnings. They also offer a ProfitsSharing plan and Employee Stock Purchase plan, as well as health and wellbeing rewards and quality medical, vision and dental coverage.

In BrightScope's annual reports of the highest-rated 401(k) plans, Southwest Airlines continuously tops the chart each year, and currently earned BrightScope Rating of 93, placing it in the top 15% of all plans in its peer group. As of 2021, Southwest Airlines Pilots Retirement Savings Plan has over 10,000 active participants with plan assets totaling over $6.4 billion.

Bottom LineBottom Line: 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, Southwest has the greatest rating and is the only airline that has a mission statement posted prominently on its website.

TipTip: 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

In its most recent survey of the airline industry, 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).

Southwest Airlines has earned the highest score every year since the Temkin Experience Ratings began in 2011, except for 2015. In the most recent rankings, the company received the highest score in the airline industry with a score of 76%, which is 10 percentage points higher than the industry average score of 66%. 

How Southwest Airlines emphasizes the customer experience

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.

How 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, but make sure you have them work within a top customer relationship management (CRM) system to ensure consistency. 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 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.

FYIFYI: There are proven customer service metrics like customer satisfaction score, net promoter score, and customer effort score you can use 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 make sure that 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 need to stick to, but there are opportunities to veer off book and personalize the experience. You could ask them what they’ve been up to lately, 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 mean 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. Not only will you now understand their explicit needs, but you’ll also get a better understanding of their overall attitude towards you and the company. If you have a positive attitude, they are much more likely to have one as well.

Image Credit: Kritchanut / Getty Images
Sean Peek
Sean Peek
business.com Contributing Writer
Sean Peek has written more than 100 B2B-focused articles on various subjects including business technology, marketing and business finance. In addition to researching trends, reviewing products and writing articles that help small business owners, Sean runs a content marketing agency that creates high-quality editorial content for both B2B and B2C businesses.