According to ACSI, Southwest is again the leader in customer satisfaction among airlines, turning in a score of 76 (out of100) which is up 2.7% over last year. The airlines combined are quite marginal (no surprise if you've been on a commercial plane lately) with a score of 63, down 3.1% from a year ago. United takes the honor of being last with a score of 56...uggh.
There are two underlying reasons why companies like Southwest Airlines shine when others, faced with the same constraints, fail...engagement and leaving room.
Southwest doesn't serve customers, they engage with them. There's a big difference. Customer service is imparting your standards, scripts and ways of doing things on your customer...and hoping they like it. Customer engagement (the key to hospitality) is centered on listening, adapting and improvising...and breaking the rules, especially when things go wrong. Practicing engagement means you're more interested in the conversation and what you can learn from it...than where it might lead.
Southwest doesn't spend as much time bloviating about how great they are, what their on-time record is, or how wonderful their services is. In fact, they paint a rather average picture of "no frills", no assigned seats travel....with the lowest fares. So, most travelers (especially newbies) come to the counter with a pretty low expectation of the experience. Of course, this is helped along a bit by the reputation of airline travel in general...which is precisely why there's a such a grand opportunity to win at this part of the game. And, Southwest does. They leave room to exceed the preconceived notion that air travel stinks. They leave room to create a positive emotional connection with everyone they touch. They leave room to show you they care.
The one question that beckons is why a company like this doesn't achieve even higher scores? A couple of reasons...one, their reputation. It's their own worst enemy. Over time, they've done such a good job training us...and Loving us, that they've created a path leading to an even higher expectation. While this is definitely a good problem to have, it has it's drawbacks. It means you're forced to reinvent yourself every so often to keep things interesting and new. The other reason the scores aren't higher is that the limitations faced by the airline pack are pretty daunting. When you consider weather delays, mechanical standards, complexity of crew schedules, dependence on computers and machinery to move vast amounts of people and luggage through a system that's already clogged...you're going to have issues. In fact, it's remarkable that anyone can achieve these results, both financially and in the service realm, given the rules and conditions of the game. And, due to this contextual reality, Southwest doesn't really need to do any better. They're already remarkable, close to 10 points ahead of their nearest competitor, Continental.
While the explanation was lengthy, the lesson is short: figure out ways to hold conversations and engage with your customer...and, don't tout yourself as being the best...let them do it for you.
And here's a bonus...when looking for place to play the engagement game, choose a sand box where going beyond expectations doesn't happen often, or at all (like the airline business, satellite TV or the economy hotel segment). It makes you remarkable by default when you do.