A Rare Southwest Service Failure

imageWhen my Southwest flight out of Lubbock was canceled this afternoon, I was disappointed, but not surprised. A late winter storm had dropped a few inches of snow and ice over the south plains, causing school cancelations and numerous delays. The entire airport was shut down yesterday along with the stretch of interstate between Lubbock and Amarillo. So it made sense that crews were still battling the after-effects today.

I quickly rebooked for the only remaining flight out, the last one of the day. The biggest impact was to my priority boarding status. I usually purchase a “Business Select” ticket on Southwest in order to take advantage of the early seating. Being among the first to board allows me to locate an aisle seat toward the front of the plane, so I can stretch my long legs and get off quickly in order to make a connecting flight. Having to rebook for a later flight meant these tickets were no longer available. I was left with boarding passes in the “B” group – not terrible, but not ideal, and certainly not what I’d paid for.

The first leg into Dallas was uneventful, I even managed to nab an aisle seat on the coveted exit row. But it was the lead up to the next leg where Southwest let me down. A few minutes before boarding, the gate attendant announced that boarding group upgrades were available for a slight fee. I approached the counter, hopeful that my purchase of a higher-priced fare on an earlier flight would warrant an easy upgrade. But after consulting the computer for a few minutes, I was informed that because I was in the middle of a two-legged trip, “the system” would not allow them to print a revised boarding pass. The otherwise helpful employee was prevented from providing a satisfying service experience by the limitations of her company’s technology.

Frustrated, I waited for my turn to board with the “B” group. But the boarding pass I handed over was thrust back in front of me. “Your printer must be messed up. It can’t read this boarding pass. You’ll have to go see them at the counter.” I stared at this gentleman in disbelief as he looked past me to the next traveler. No second attempt to scan the document. No manual entry on the keyboard. Dispite the fact that my first boarding pass had scanned successfully in Lubbock, this issue was now my problem. So I trudged back over to the counter losing my place in line and any hope of a decent seat.

A customer’s perception of an organization is a mash-up of every experience, good and bad, that they’ve ever had with them. Any given negative interaction isn’t likely to make or break the relationship between company and customer, but they add up. And certain ones have a longer shelf-life and, therefore, more weight in the customer’s mind.

Service failures happen all the time. But in my book, the worst ones are those where, as a customer, I feel like I’ve done everything in my power to help the company provide me with an excellent experience. Failures of this type don’t just feel like poor service, they feel like injustice. And it’s hard to get over the feeling you’ve been done wrong.

So here are some tips to avoid creating feelings of injustice due to a service failure.

– Don’t allow policy or technology to keep well-intentioned employees from assisting customers. Despite anything written in a manual or programmed into the computer, my gate attendant should have been able to make a phone call and get assistance in oredr to provide me with a boarding pass equivalent to the one I paid for.

– Make sure employees understand that customers aren’t at fault – even if they are. My printer isn’t “messed up.” Another boarding pass I printed at the same time scanned flawlessly in Lubbock. But even had the problem been caused by my equipment, having it announced in front of other passengers does nothing to enhance the experience.

– Acknowledge the customer’s frustration. Even after explaining and pleading my case, the only thing I received was a weak “sorry.” How about a few drink coupons or extra rewards points for my trouble? In cases where you can’t rectify the issue, at least show the customer you care by doing something to try and make amends. As things stand, I don’t even know if I’ll get refunded the difference in ticket price. It’s on my shoulders to track that down as well.

Southwest typically does a great job, and they’re still my first choice (albeit often my only choice) when I fly. They have numerous awards to illustrate their dedication to customer service. But today’s experience showed me that even the best trip up sometimes. I’ll try to remain mindful of this when evaluating the service efforts of my own organization.

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