we appreciate your business

Southwest Airlines describes itself as a customer service company that happens to fly planes.

Contrast the Southwest philosophy with the Grinch mentality of many other airlines. I heard recently that “SLF” is aircrew slang for “passengers”. It stands for “Self-Loading Freight”.

Many brands outwardly market themselves very differently from the actual brand experience. United used the “Fly The Friendly Skies” tagline for 30 years. My experiences with United in the Sky, on the Tarmac, in the Customer Service line, at Check-in, at Baggage Claim, have been far from “friendly”. This isn’t the fault of flight attendants (many of whom are heroic personally). It’s how United as an organization prioritizes customer service.

Customer service is one of the most important but least appreciated domains of marketing. Brands are not judged most by their ads. Brands are judged most by what happens when things go wrong. It is an area for great brands to shine and for lousy brands to show their true colors.

Customer service is also an area for brands like Southwest to create a clear point of difference. It helped make Southwest into a legend. While the airline industry is getting commoditized, Southwest has a Net Promoter Score 45 points above the industry average. They are one of the most successful airlines in the world.

Instead of just saying “we appreciate your business”, there’s value in showing it.

(Marketoonist Monday: I’m giving away one signed print of this week’s cartoon. Just share an insightful comment to this week’s post by 5:00 PST on Monday. I’ll pick one comment. Thanks!)

Here’s another cartoon on this theme drawn from my experiences with United.

And here’s an hysterical mock inflight video from MadTV that parodies the airline service experience.

  1. Nilesh says

    Advertisements can attract customers for first time. Only good service or product experience can attract them for second time.
    Any customer is paying for what we “say” in advertisement , but he is willing to pay only for what we actually “deliver”.
    Net promoters will increase if value of services/products delivered is perceived better when compared with paid cost.
    What we promise may be small, but if it’s completely delivered- it’s value is great.

  2. Dan Duyser says

    I work in automotive service marketing and I always shake my head when dealerships want to promote “convenient service hours” on their marketing, but close at 6:00 during the week and are only open for a few hours on a Saturday. Convenient for who?

  3. Tom Larsen says

    Why don’t more companies study this stuff and see how it can apply in their business? A coffee chain here – Tim Horton’s – almost never gets my order right or I have to repeat it 2x simply because they don’t LISTEN!

  4. Karl Sakas says

    Southwest isn’t perfect, but they’re my favorite airline to fly. Why? Because their employees don’t seem to hate that their job involves passengers — they recognize that they’re a hospitality company, not just a transportation company.

    With other airlines, you often get the impression that they’d prefer to fly empty planes from A to B. And Tom, you’re right, that’s not the cabin crew’s fault — I’m sure this is something about management incentives.

    As a marketer, I’m fascinated to see that Southwest still successfully cultivates its 1970s “scrappy underdog” image, even as they’re now the third largest airline in the United States: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Largest_airline#By_scheduled_passengers_carried

  5. Brad says

    American Airlines “we know why you fly…we just don’t care”. It still completely baffles me why so few airlines just don’t get it. Are they really that blind? Do they really not see what’s happening? Why is this one of the worst industries in the world for customer service? Especially, when all of the other areas of travel are so customer centric. Is the root of the problem operations and they goals they have been given?


  6. Concetta Phillipps says

    Great cartoon, Tom. I’d contrast this with the recent story about Apple deciding to make changes in their staffing for Apple Stores, a place with legendary customer service.

    Here’s just one article about it: http://www.ifoapplestore.com/db/2012/08/15/store-personnel-cuts-linked-to-profit-goal/

    Apple got creamed in the press – less than 24 hours after the story hit the press, Apple backpedaled in order to keep its saintly “customer service” legends reputation.

    I haven’t been a Southwest customer in years after a horrific experience with them. But I wonder if both Apple and Southwest are setting the standard and also boxing themselves in a corner where the expectations of their reputation are higher than reality, and therefore, altering the scale of how we judge everyone else. (Not that I’m saying airlines really aren’t as bad as they are…just putting the question out there).

  7. DSprogis says

    I hate flying so much that I can’t really tell one airline from another. At 6’2″ my experience starts with anxiety over which seat I will get and how much legroom I will have.

    Add an expensive cab ride in a dirty cab that feels like it might not make it to the airport all the while trying to avoid a lame advert-info monitor in my face.

    Now come the lines – a line to check your baggage and another to check your body and carry-on belongings.

    Next comes the gate wait – should I get a lousy cup of over-priced coffee or go straight for the booze? – tough call after you hear that your flight is delayed.

    Zones – I hate zones too – what happened to loading from the rear? Typically the last person on the plane, I find that all the overhead compartments are full. Shouldn’t the overhead space be allocated on a per-seat basis? I have a seat therefore I should have a spot for my backpack. Not wanting to check my backpack, I compromise what little legroom I have.

    BTW, does anyone like the middle seat? Who thought that was a good idea?

    I’m looking forward to the invention of stasis chambers – even for short flights. They will solve a lot of problems. Get in one at home and get out at your destination. Say goodbye to SLF.

  8. Jon says

    It’s the lowered expectations of travelers (and in other businesses), or rather their expectations of bad service, that creates a ‘positive’ experience for what’s really no more than basic human kindness and positive interaction. I can’t think of the last time I saw or heard of anyone promising truly amazing service but have heard thousands times that someone will ‘listen to you’ or have a ‘friendly’ attitude. It’s sad that the mere act of listening constitutes something worth advertising. Local markets don’t advertise niceness next to the price of pears because that’s a necessity of their business (at least in my neighborhood). Are we more likely to see “Fred’s Market – we care!” or “Megalith Bank – we care!” on television? Let’s face it – if you’re having to advertise that you’re friendly, your industry is not known for being nice. And usually for good reason.

  9. Ripe Inc says

    Southwest Airlines are friendly and fun through and through. It’s not just something they say in a tagline or an ad campaign, it’s a quality that permeates the organization on every level, and we as customers benefit from it during every interaction. It’s not just when things are going wrong, it’s present all the time, which is why it’s genuine and it’s why they’re successful. “Friendly” is a great brand keyword to own.

  10. Jacqueline Beckley says

    The beginning of this year we started communicating that as we had left the supply economy of the last century and entered the demand economy (see Kash, 2002), we think we are entering the relationship economy – that it is all about that relationship you have or create and then sustain. Your example of Southwest is great…..they have demonstrated the behavior for a long time….so I can trust that what they say…is what they mean. Thanks Tom for giving us a couple of examples to use with others! In a few examples you have given us a lot more to think about.

  11. Jeff Domansky {The PR Coach} says

    Enjoyed your post Tom.

    And then there’s United Airlines’ newest service offer since breaking guitars and losing cats — losing child passengers: “Airline loses couple’s 10-year-old daughter” http://yhoo.it/Q3JYfC

  12. John says

    I’ve only been scalded by one airline. That’s right — painfully burned by coffee hot water, that was carelessly poured on me by a flight attendant (no turbulence, she was literally not watching what she was doing). And yes, the airline was United. When I began screaming from the pain, she shushed me and told me to be quiet. Astounded, I was able to stop yelling and ask her for ice, so that I could cool down my pants and ease the pain. She said she would return after serving the other passengers. Before I could protest, her flight attendant partner handed me a towel filled with ice. The relief helped to calm me down. The first flight attendant asked if I still wanted coffee. I said yes. To my utter amazement, she once again looked elsewhere while pouring coffee — and spilled it on my arm! Again, the pain was intense and instant. This time, I not only cried out, I stood up. The flight attendant instructed me to sit and be quiet. I told her I would not sit until she removed the cart and herself away from me. She again reprimanded me. I again demanded that she move. Finally the flight service leader came back to find out what was the commotion. The flight attendant said an unruly passenger was creating a disturbance (pointing to me). I pointed to the coffee on my shirt, the coffee on my pants, and told her I had two scald wounds. I continued that if the flight attendant did not remove the dangers from my presence immediately, that I would consider her behavior not accidental but willful, and sue them personally (as well as United) for assault and battery. Next thing I knew, the Captain was there, removed the flight attendant from service on that flight, apologized, and provided me with paperwork to file a formal complaint. I did. Never heard a word back from United. But my burns recovered and I let it go. Friendly Skies? They’ve got to be kidding. Fiendish is more like it.

  13. MB says

    I too despise United Airlines, unless of course, I’m flying first class, which happens occasionally, which is the only thing United does well. American is a close 2nd on my despizometer. I am a highly critical flyer, but just luv, luv, luv Southwest. While they occasionally have a misstep, they routinely exceed my expectations. Who else lets you change your flight whenever, and without penalty, immediately credits back any points if the flight is actually cheaper, or holds onto any $$ you spent on a ticket you didn’t use and allows you to use it on future flights…amazing! And nobody can get so many people on a plane as fast as Southwest.

  14. says

    Hi all,

    Great commentary, many thanks! I feel better know how many kindred spirits there are out there who have been “scrunited”.

    This week’s cartoon goes to Nilesh. I like the simple lesson in the role of advertising versus service in attracting customers for a second time. It’s true that it’s more important to promise small and over-deliver than to make bigger promises they don’t keep.


  15. Barbara says

    While I, too, have experienced some difficulties with various airlines, is there anyone out there who can admit that at least part of the problem could be caused by the passengers themselves? I am appaled at the surly, rude, ill-mannered people I have to share the plane with. While the airline personnel may be in the service industry, how many of them are more often than not, forced to pay for prior “crimes” committed by others? The more often passengers “pay back” airline staff for prior offences they can not forget/forgive, the behavior continues to spiral downward. Believe me, a return smile, a “good morning,” “please,” “thank you,” goes a LONG way in any interaction with service prsonnel.

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