Thursday, August 9, 2012

An observation about, then a lesson from, another great cultural brand

Last week, my wife bought a plane ticket on The next morning, she had five receipts for flights purchased in her email inbox. When she called Southwest to find out what was up with that, she got a recorded message telling her that she could expect to be on hold for up to an hour.

Southwest has a callback service, so Mary didn't have to wait on the phone. In about an hour, a Southwest customer service agent called her and told her there'd been a bit of a computer problem last night, and that some people had over 100 flights booked, when they'd wanted just one.

What was interesting, to me, as I listened in on the conversation, was that Mary wasn't really pissed off at Southwest, despite the fact that they'd made a screw up that could have caused her some real problems. Since she booked the flight with a debit card, it could have cause us to be overdrawn. Other customers using credit cards could suddenly have found themselves unable to use their cards after going over their limits. And let's face it, the problem really highlighted a flaw in Southwest's system. I mean, if one person books 100 tickets, shouldn't that get red-flagged for review by a human being before the transaction is put through?

But Mary was pretty cheerful, chatting away with the equally cheerful Southwest customer service agent. That was proof of my thesis that when you build a great cultural brand around authenticity and friendliness, your customers will cut you a huge amount of slack when they experience your brand in a way that would normally be very disappointing. I can flat guarantee you that any other airline that made that mistake would not just be dealing with thousands of customers with a complaint, they'd be dealing with thousands of enraged customers, many of whom would avoid that airline in the future. Not so, with Southwest.

After Mary hung up, we realized that even if we weren't too hurt by the mistake, others probably were. People probably had overdraft charges, it could even affect credit ratings. So I wondered if Southwest had gone far enough in merely canceling excess bookings and crediting back charges.

"They really should do something for us," she said. "At least send us some vouchers for free drinks."

"Yes," I replied, "or give you free priority boarding on your next flight."

A few days later, Mary got an email from Southwest. The company admitted it had screwed up, and explained that customers who experienced any kind of financial penalty could submit claims and be fully reimbursed. And, it gave my wife a $150 voucher to be used against her next flight purchase.

One of Gardiner's Laws of Marketing reads: Nobody loves you as much as someone who just hated you. That rule means, really fixing a customer's problem doesn't just get you back to where you were in that customer relationship, it will actually improve your relationship.

That's right, you can strengthen your brand by disappointing your customer.

The two things Southwest could have done better were, 1.) instead of waiting a few days to send customers the email with the $150 voucher, it could have sent an interim email out saying, "Hey, we know we screwed up, and we promise you we're going to do right by you. Please give us a few days to figure out exactly what went wrong, which customers were involved, and how to make it up to you." And 2.) they could have explained what steps will be taken to ensure it doesn't happen again.

That would have got Southwest an A+ rating from me, but as it is they're a solid A- on their response. In summary, when great cultural brands disappoint their customers the keys turning disappointment into a brand- and relationship-building opportunity are transparency and authenticity. Brands should...

  • admit they made a mistake
  • apologize
  • assure customers it won't happen again, take steps to ensure it won't, and explain those steps to their customers
  • make amends, not just covering customers' out-of-pocket expenses, but respecting the time and trouble they caused their customers.

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