October 11, 2010
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|HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE 2010 APTA ANNUAL MEETING
Customer Service? Do the Right Thing
BY LYNNE T. DEAN, Special to Passenger Transport
Employees of Southwest Airlines are in the customer service business—they just happen to provide airline transportation, said Camille Keith, an original employee of the airline and most recently its vice president of special marketing. During the interactive Professional Development session she led Oct. 6 in San Antonio, TX, participants learned the inside story about the company consistently rated No. 1 in customer service and employee satisfaction.
Calling Southwest “the little plane that could,” Keith reviewed the meteoric rise of the company and credited much of its success to a mission statement that emphasizes the airline’s commitment to “trying to do the right thing.” She stressed that the company is not selling an airline; it’s selling an experience.
While at Southwest, Keith was responsible for developing nationwide marketing strategies targeted at specific groups—women, children, senior citizens, and college students—as well as special projects in the 62 cities and 32 states the carrier serves. She played a key role in the development of what many have called “the nation’s friendliest” airline and the creation of a unique corporate culture centered on a mission of customer service.
With humor and warmth, she shared anecdotes depicting the company’s commitment to customer service, ranging from an employee who changed a customer’s flat tire to one who helped a customer deal with breast cancer to many who provide baby gifts.
Keith also recounted how employees responded to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when many airline passengers found themselves stranded in unfamiliar airports and unsure of what would happen next. Southwest employees stepped up to book buses, rental cars, hotels, meals, and more for passengers in need; many used their own credit cards because of the urgency of the situation.
Beyond simply taking care of the customer’s needs, employees at Southwest Airlines treat each passenger as a guest. According to Keith, that principle is essential to the company’s customer service—and one of the reasons for its superlative ratings in consumer satisfaction accumulated and published by DOT.
She credited the team spirit of employees, as well as their joint ownership of the airline, as another key part of the company’s stellar performance in customer service. “Herb Kelleher [Southwest co-founder] told early employees they would have a Cadillac and a million dollars before they retire,” she said. As part of that team spirit, the company hires people that it believes care about people and has developed a corporate culture centered on this philosophy.
The best ideas, Keith noted, arise from a group of people working together. When questioned how Southwest works with employees who aren’t team players, she acknowledged that some people simply need coaching. And, she added, a sense of humor and a little compassion go a long way.
Recognition of “people doing something right,” being quick to apologize because “it’s hard to argue with someone who says ‘I’m really sorry,’” and “keeping our word” are all part of that Southwest culture, Keith said. Reputation, she explained, is built by a thousand individual acts.
Participants provided examples of their customer service experiences throughout the session. These ranged from passing on positive e-mail communications to the person who provided the experience that prompted the e-mail to an account of one agency providing holiday lights tours for seniors as a marketing strategy to increase ridership.