A great lesson from Southwest Airlines on how to recover from a significant customer satisfaction failure.

Late last week I published an article titled “From Hall of Shame to Hall of Fame – Part One: Hall of Shame” where I talked about terrible customer service in the travel industry and suggested some applications for senior living. This is a very different kind of story.  It’s a story about turning lemons into lemonade, about taking a colossal failure and turning it into a spectacular win.   

Why Customer Service Failures Happen

There are fundamentally two reasons for customer service failures.   The first is that we are human and sometimes even people with great customer service hearts have a bad day or a bad moment.  These failures can be minimized by hiring the right people and by creating the right work culture, but never completely eliminated. The second reason is because many organizations that claim to be customer service oriented don’t get customer service.  In fact, they mostly see customers as either a piggybank to be shaken for every penny they can extract, or they see customers as the enemy. This fake customer service culture becomes obvious whenever a non-standard request is made or there is a problem that needs fixing.  In companies that have a true customer service culture, team members have a lot of flexibility in making things right . . .  making the customer happy.  In fake customer service cultures, policies are designed to make team members more afraid of going outside policy (fear of the boss) than being afraid they will alienate a customer.  They are policies that allow little flexibility and as few a concession to customers as possible.  

Southwest Airline gets it right when they did it wrong

In part one I described how I rented a car from Payless through the Southwest Airlines website, something I have done many times and how when I got to the Payless counter they would not honor the reservation price.  It was clear to me that the failure was on the part of Payless and that the Southwest website did what it was supposed to do.  Yet for all that I still had this question:  Was it safe to continue to rent through the Southwest Portal or would I find myself at an airport with no car reservation and no cars available? I called the Southwest Airlines customer service number, waited on hold about 8 minutes and explained to the representative what had happened.  Her response was that Southwest Airlines had no responsibility for what happened.  They just provided this website and that if I had a beef or concern it was with the rental car company, even though it was booked through the Southwest Website.  She had zero interest in investigating the failure or offering me anything.  From her point of view I was just wasting her valuable time.  She refused to connect me to a supervisor.  I was blown away, because it was not consistent with my interactions with Southwest. I went digging for a different contact number, reached a message machine where I explained my frustration.  Less than an hour later I got a call back from another representative offering profuse apologies and some concrete steps they would take:

1.  They would very specifically address the issue with the representative who was so rude to me.

2.  They would work explore what went wrong from the point of my making the reservation to the reservation being honored to make sure it would not happen to me or other customers again.

3.  To go above and beyond, she told me that they would refund the entire cost of the rental ($135).  Because I was traveling on the Vigil dime I asked if they would give me mileage credit instead. She couldn’t do that, but did send me a $200 travel voucher.  


1.  Be putting goodwill capital in the bank all the time  – I have overall had good experiences with Southwest Airlines which was why the initial response was so surprising. I can’t help but wonder how many unhappy residents we could eliminate and lawsuits we could avoid in senior housing if only there had been a conscious effort to develop great personal relationships between families and community leadership.

2.  In resolving the problem she did not make any excuses for what happened.  –  The message was we blew it.  “It was our fault, it shouldn’t have happened and we will take steps to make sure this kind of thing doesn’t happen again.”  It is always painful to admit we did it wrong and yet, always gains more love and respect than being defensive or stonewalling.

3.  Fix problems in big bold ways. –  While a $200 flight voucher isn’t life changing, it is not a trivial thing.  It will pay for most of a weekend round trip mini vacation.  It will probably be spent on a flight that I otherwise would not have taken, and making it even better for Southwest I will also take my wife, which means paying cash.  The $200 voucher will in reality cost them nothing but is a big deal to me.  .  . a story worth telling here and in other places.  

How have you recovered from a customer service failure?