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Learning From Southwest Airlines

"Good Morning Sir, how are you today?" "Good" I replied. I was traveling with my two kids and wife on our annual vacation to the beach and the curbside Southwest baggage check man was starting a conversation that was typical of such an experience. What I didn't realize at that moment was that I was about to embark on an anything but typical type of customer service experience with their company. A sort of "How To" guide for dummies about how to start a customer service experience, execute a customer service experience, and then be so over the top special with the customer service experience that customers are left shaking their heads thinking to themselves "What just happened?"

The Introduction:

"Oh my God Dad, what happened to that kid?" my 7 year old says as we exit the train to terminals and begin towards the escalators. There is blood everywhere as 3 EMT's and two dismayed parents hold their shrieking child. The scene is chilling, and a crowd is building as they try to stop the bleeding. My sons scurry around the blood puddles on the floor and as I usher them upstairs while the EMT's work on the child. A nearby Mother is trying to explain to her small children that the child's finger was cut off in the escalator and explaining why they should never stick their fingers in the moving parts.

My 7 year old son begins asking a barrage of questions and I try as best I can to give the age appropriate responses. When standing in line at the Einstein Bagel to get my kids something to eat, it happens:

"Dad, I don't feel good."
"Ok, what doesn't feel good?"
"I think I'm going to throw up."
"Let's get out of line and sit down for a second."

Before we can do anything, my 7 year old goes down. Hard. I'm frantic. I'm slapping his cheeks gently and holding the back of his head while yelling at the people in the busy bagel shop to PLEASE get me some water and a cold rag for my son and call for some help. People faint in movies and TV shows all the time, and it just doesn't seem like a big deal. When your little boy faints for the first time in his life and you can't wake him up, let me tell you parents and non-parents alike, it is the biggest deal.

Suddenly, I'm surrounded by "I'm a firefighter", "I'm an EMT", "I'm a doctor" and now I have somehow acquired a group of amazingly qualified and less frantic people than myself. My wife walks by and sees us on the floor "Oh my god! This is my boy!!! What is going on!" The explanations ensue. As the EMT's show up, begin checking vitals, and my son is conscious and coming around, I noticed two people within my new entourage that don't match the others. One woman in a blue shirt, and one man in a red shirt. They are offering water, talking to my son and asking him questions, and, then, one asks me:

"Excuse me sir, what airline are you flying?"
"Southwest to Tampa"
"At 10:25am?"
"Yes" (Why are they asking me this?)
"Sir, don't you worry about missing your flight, we'll let them know what is going on and make sure that you are the first ones on the plane so that you can get settled and make sure he is comfortable and not having to wait in line. If you don't make that flight, you don't worry about a thing. We'll figure something out for you ok?"

I thank them and direct my attention back to the EMT's. "He needs sugar." I say. "Can somebody please get him some orange juice?" Again, red shirt from Southwest speaks up: "Sir, don't worry, we're already jumping on one of our planes right now that is at the gate to get him some orange juice, she should be right back." Moments later, blue shirt says "Now just to clarify, this orange juice has sugar in it, he's not diabetic is he?" A genuine interest in my son's well-being, and, an attention to detail to boot.

After ensuring our sons health (all of a sudden he's hungry again? Always a good sign….) we proceed to the gate where red and blue shirts are no longer present. Shoot. We thanked them at the scene of the incident, but in the way you thank someone when you're distracted by your children's health.

Sure enough, we are identified, and asked to board the plane first. Who are these people? Genuine and sincere gratitude for their company, genuine care for their customers, attention to detail, and communication for superior follow through…… far.

Over The Top

Having finally arrived at our destination late in the evening, we are settled in and ready to start our annual vacation as a family when the call comes from the neighbors that are watching our 17 year old golden retriever Tyson for us while we are gone:

"Tyson isn't doing well, he won't eat, drink, or walk, and he's shaking uncontrollably and vomiting when he tries to drink."

It's that conversation where you know it's time to help your most loyal friend of 17 years stop suffering. And we are at least six hours of travel away.

So my wife calls Southwest and speaks to Andrea. $500 each way for next day travel and the "points" games ensues. Some of ours, some of her Mother's and Stepdads. Still short. After a (yet another) genuine discussion regarding our predicament Andrea comes up with a financially feasible solution to make it possible for my wife to hold our dear friend in his final breaths. The effort was nothing short of remarkable. The kind of generosity that makes you wonder: "What's init for them? Is this for real?"

The Cherry On Top

So there my wife is, sitting in the terminal about to take her fourth flight in the last two days, exhausted from the travel and emotional toll of saying goodbye to our four legged friend when she notices a group of passengers surrounding the podium and yelling at the poor person behind it. The flight has been delayed 2 hours and the person behind the podium is taking the abuse like a pro. It's red shirt from the experience with my son. After the crowd clears, she approaches him:

"Do you remember me?"
"I do. What are you doing here? You're supposed to be on vacation. How is your son" (he remembers him by his first name)

The conversation continues and proper "Thank You's" are given. Any myth of some carefully orchestrated "Let's all give great customer service today" corporate pow-wow dissipate. He remembered my son's name.

And then you start to think about the prior 24 hours of experiences: The bag check. The incident at the terminal. The follow-through during the boarding process. The same level of genuine and sincere caring with Andrea on the round-trip same day flight booking. Remembering my son's name a full day of new headaches and problems later, and it all seems to come in to focus. This company is the real deal. It's not smoke and mirrors on one level, only to be disappointed in another aspect of the company like we are so accustomed to seeing.

Gratitude and genuine self-interest in the success of one's company. Sincere and caring approach towards customers, those that may be yours, and those that may be not. Follow-through on doing what you say you will do. True empathy with your customers when you have the ability do something over the top for them because, well, you can. These are all principals that we hope our companies take to the same level that Southwest does. If you own an independent company, think how hard it must be to instill this level of service across a company as large as Southwest Airlines, and then ask yourselves, could we be doing this at our business?

We'll be asking ourselves the same question.