Growth5 Blog

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Southwest Airlines Social Brand/Damage Control; A Little Empathy Goes a Long Way

Twenty years ago if you had a complaint with a business, you might write them a letter, call them to make a complaint, write a letter to the editor of your local paper, at the very least you would tell anyone who would listen about your complaint. As a result, he company might take an infinitesimally small hit to their brand.

Today, if you're Kevin Smith and you have a complaint against Southwest Airlines you start to blog, podcast (his "smodcast" was over an hour dedicated specifically to the complaint) and tweet (200+ on the topic since Saturday) to your 1.6 million followers. [Warning: some of the language and subject matter in the tweets, blog and podcast by Kevin Smith are similar to what you would find in his movies. If you wouldn't go see his movies because of that, I wouldn't click on these links for the same reason.]

With today's "instant" real-time news cycle, Smith's story gets picked up by media outlets around the world (1,000+ on Google News) and Southwest has a brand/damage control crisis on its hands that has been put in front of millions and millions of people.

If you're Southwest, what do you do? Surprisingly to me, someone from @SouthwestAir started responding to @ThatKevinSmith's tweets almost immediately on Saturday evening. This person handled it as well as could be expected.
-@ThatKevinSmith hey Kevin! I'm so sorry for your experience tonight! Hopefully we can make things right, please follow so we may DM! 6:08 PM Feb 13th

-Hey folks - trust me, I saw the tweets from @ThatKevinSmith I'll get all the details and handle accordingly! Thanks for your concerns! 6:22 PM Feb 13th

-I read every single tweet that comes into this account, and take every tweet seriously. We'll handle @thatkevinsmith issue asap. 7:37 PM Feb 13th

-I've read the tweets all night from @thatkevinsmith - He'll be getting a call at home from our Customer Relations VP tonight. 8:14 PM Feb 13th

-@ThatKevinSmith Ok, I'll be sure to check it out. Hopefully you received our voicemail earlier this evening. 10:52 PM Feb 13th

-@ThatKevinSmith Again, I'm very sorry for the experience you had tonight. Please let me know if there is anything else I can do. 10:53 PM Feb 13th"

Taking a few steps backward, on Sunday afternoon, Southwest posted this "Not So Silent Bob" blog on the topic thinking they could shut Smith down with their policy logic. Yeah, not so much.

By yesterday (Monday), Southwest (who has less followers than Smith) realized they were treading in deeper waters than originally anticipated. They called and spoke to Smith directly and posted this quasi-apology blog titled, "My Conversation with Kevin Smith."

What can we learn from how Southwest handled this?

1. The Southwest tweets were timely and empathized with Smith's situation and promised action to resolve the issue. This was a decent start.

2. The policy blog Southwest posted with the "Not So Silent Bob" title erased any goodwill the tweets had created.

3. Unfortunately, Southwest waited to contact Smith directly until they had completed their own internal investigation. In today's real-time web, this ended up being a mistake. They lost two days of a nearly one-side social media onslaught.

Customers want to see some empathy towards their plight. Southwest should have contacted Smith immediately and at the very least recognized how upset he was, empathized with his frustration and let him know they were looking into it (the internal investigation) and would get back to him quickly with the results. The tweets accomplished this, but a voice conversation would have accomplished more, allowing Smith to vent to a Southwest human vs. thru his computer to the world.

What more could be expected from Southwest at that point from those following the story if they had done that? No company should be expected to admit they were wrong and apologize until they had the facts. However, a little empathy can go a long way while it is being sorted out.

I was boarding a Southwest flight recently where an elderly woman who wanted to sit in the front row was told she couldn't keep her bag on the floor in front of her, it needed to go in the overhead compartment. It was a sad episode because clearly the woman saw the bag as a security blanket of some kind and started melting down into a disturbing emotional episode.

The flight attendant kept reiterating Southwest's policy on the 'no bags in front of you in the front row of the airplane policy' which obviously wasn't helping at all. A more experienced flight attendant jumped in, sat next to the passenger and very quietly asked her what was wrong and what could she do to help. She assured the woman that everything would be ok and they could work this out. Brilliant. The lady calmed down, moved to the 2nd row, kept her bag under the seat in front of her – crisis averted.

When you're upset, the last thing you want to hear about is the policy, especially if the policy wasn't being followed properly in the case of the Kevin Smith complaint.

4. It took over 48 hours, but Southwest eventually came around to how they could have done this better. From Southwest's "My Conversation with Kevin Smith" post last night (Monday):
"I had the chance this afternoon to speak directly with director Kevin Smith. I let him know that in my 18 years here at Southwest, I have never dealt with a situation like what has been unfolding in the last 48 hours. I let Kevin know we have refunded his airfare. I told him we made a mistake in trying to board him as a standby passenger and then remove him. And I told him we were sorry...

Although I’m not here to debate the decision our Employees made, I can tell you that I for one have learned a lot today. The communication among our Employees was not as sharp as it should have been and, it’s apparent that Southwest could have handled this situation differently. Thanks, Kevin, for your passion around this topic. You were a reasonable guy during our conversation..."
If someone at Southwest had been able to have that conversation with Kevin on Saturday, the 48 hours of bad press for Southwest might have been able to be avoided. Southwest could have possibly turned this around.

5. Clearly the Southwest employee who is handling Twitter responded properly. Perhaps the executives that eventually got involved don't work on the weekends. They might want to take note that Blogs, Tweets and Podcasts don't work M - F 9 to 5. If you're going to be part of the conversation, you have to be ready to engage whenever and wherever the conversation is. And remember that a little empathy goes a long way.

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