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On a recent trip to Breckenridge, Colorado I found myself standing at a three-way intersection that consumers often encounter when making a purchasing decision. That intersection consists of price, convenience, and service. We all prioritize a different factor in different situations. On a quick lunch break, convenience may trump the other two but if I want to show some friends my hometown, I am going to take them to a restaurant that has remarkable service and atmosphere. When it comes to flying, though, price pretty much always dictates my buying behavior. Nothing illustrates this better than when I book my tickets with Southwest, whose lack of assigned seating is more than a slight annoyance. Nevertheless, cheap flights and free checked bags are a pretty big carrot to dangle and I can’t help but bite. On this particular trip, though, I was reminded of how important customer service can be in influencing my purchasing decisions in the long run versus the short term gratification provided by price or convenience. This is where Southwest is the master of their domain.
As I was waiting in line in the jetway to board the plane, a casual conversation with the man in front of me sprouted spontaneously. Both of us were celebrating the fact that we had been granted a seat on our present flight because Southwest had overbooked us. What he said to me has adhered itself to my memory. I will paraphrase:
“Southwest has won my customer loyalty every step of the way. The last time I flew Southwest I was the last person to board the plane and was forced to sit next to an overweight woman. Her body was definitely spilling over into my seat slightly but nothing egregious like you would see in a movie – in a comedy, you know? I did not complain or make any sort of eye contact with a stewardess that would suggest I was displeased. I just sucked it up. When I got up from my seat to exit the plane, the head stewardess – I assume she was the head stewardess – came up to me, thanked me for putting up with the inconvenience, and handed me a $100 voucher. They were so clued in to their customer experience that they noticed my situation and took the initiative to fix a small error that honestly was not their fault.”
This did not happen to me. It did not happen to my girlfriend or someone in my family. It happened to a complete stranger who I will likely never see again and yet it had the effect of endearing me to Southwest via my empathy for his situation. Southwest created a brand ambassador through that small action and if that man told me – a random guy in line behind him – then he most certainly told at least 10 other people. And now here I am blogging about it.
When it comes to airlines, many people are like me: they pick by price. The airlines have been trying for decades to create mechanisms that influence buyer behavior beyond price – frequent flier programs are the economist’s poster child for this – but price still wins out. But small actions like what the Southwest flight attendant did create a lasting impression and help endear customers to brands. Indeed, Southwest has become known in the industry for representing the pinnacle of customer service at winning that title is not done through advertising but through the arduous process of word-of-mouth.
I would be very willing to bet that Southwest has made back that $100 investment, and countless other ones like it, many times over.