The Story at Southwest

This excerpt from "Do The Right Thing" by James F. Parker, former CEO of Southwest Airlines, is about how to build a customer-service culture.

Saturday, December 1, 2007
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Build a Customer Service Culture

We have all probably encountered "customer service" representatives who were rude and surly, and didn't really care about our needs as a customer. Maybe they were near the end of their shifts or their backs ached. Or maybe they were just having a bad day. Or maybe they hated their jobs.

I'm not saying this never happened at Southwest. We sometimes had customers who encountered bad customer service. Our best customers were usually thoughtful enough to let us know about it because they knew that such events did not represent our company's customer service culture. We appreciated our customers' interest in our business, and we always followed up on these reports. 

Unlike a lot of companies that simply send out form letters telling customers how much the company values their opinions, every customer communication received a personal response at Southwest. We did have standard explanations for recurring questions about various policies or procedures, but every letter received a personal response. Letters that involved a conflict between a customer and an employee or that alleged inappropriate behavior by an employee received special attention. We tried to investigate every such complaint.

Customers aren't always right. In most cases, our internal investigations revealed that our employees simply couldn't give the customer the answer they wanted. As anybody who has ever watched the unscripted A&E network television show Airline knows, customers can be rushed, rude, and sometimes abusive when they don't get the answers they want. Most customers are perfectly pleasant, but sometimes they go over the edge. In such situations, we supported our employees. We certainly were not going to apologize to somebody who was rude to or abused one of our employees.

On some occasions, we did find that our employees had acted inappropriately or simply had not used the best judgment. On rare occasions, we found that we had picked the wrong person for the job and needed to make a change, but this was the exception. Usually, it was just a case of somebody having a bad day, being in a hurry, or having a personal crisis in their life. They just needed a little counseling and a reminder of why we were in business.

We appreciated our customers' feedback and actually found that the number of compliments we received on our employees far exceeded the number of complaints. Our customers really seemed to feel this was their airline, and they just wanted to let us know how it was doing. 

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A culture of customer service is the key to building an enduring competitive advantage in any customer service business. Having the lowest price is only the start. Customers will not long tolerate bad service just to get a low price. Moreover, some competitor will ultimately figure out how to match a low price, so low prices are merely a fleeting competitive advantage. A true customer service culture is not so easy to match.

A customer service culture starts with internal customers. There is one rule every leader should remember: The way you treat your employees will determine the way your employees treat customers.

Employees who enjoy their jobs, love their company, and feel appreciated will want to deliver superior customer service. They will be passionate about it. They will want customers to love their company as much as they do. They will value customers, care for them, and turn customers into advocates.

Employees who love their jobs will cause customers to love the company. Employees who hate their jobs will make customers hate the company.

Do the Right Thing: How Dedicated Employees Create Loyal Customers and Large Profits by James F. Parker © 2008 Pearson Education publishing as Wharton School Publishing. All Rights Reserved. 

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