3 First-Time UX Techniques to Change Southwest’s Cattle Call Stigma

These days you’ll often hear United, Delta, and American Airlines customers complaining about the decline in quality service. Ask these same customers “why not try a different model in Southwest?” and you might receive a quick “No thanks, I hate the cattle call”. However, this perception of an unorganized system doesn’t match up with numbers and stories that prove otherwise. Southwest and other companies can look to break a stigma by applying first-time user experience techniques.

Customers ‘camp out’ during boarding at a United gate in San Francisco.

United, for example, does have a method to the madness of boarding an airplane, which they call “WilMA”. WilMA is simply the idea of boarding window seats first, followed by middle and then aisle. They add a layer of complexity by boarding in up to five different groups. However, you’ll notice that the first two groups are further stratified into “Global Services”, “1K”, “Platinum”, “Star Alliance Gold”, “Mileage Plus Gold”, “Mileage Plus Silver”, “Mileage Explorer cardholders”, and others. The last three groups are where WilMA finally begins and you can imagine at this point the system is already broken. WilMA doesn’t account for families sitting together, and the elaborate status tiers also work against this model.

The numbers don’t lie, either. Studies have shown that a random boarding process is a more efficient way to board a plane. While this doesn’t directly translate to an improved experience, it does support the reality of a less painful experience through airlines like Southwest (vs. United). Informed customers are empowered to board in a way that makes sense for them. The key here is the word “informed”.

Southwest uses a boarding system and a flatter rewards status approach that may often be confusing for newcomers, so any gaps in the upfront “First-Time User Experience” will be magnified. A poor or confusing first impression may often be compared to positive recent impressions with a competitor, leading to a stigma that only reflects some of the more rare and unfortunate experiences. Let’s look at three ways to help change new and prospective customer perception that will challenge even the best experiences on competing airlines:

1 Introduce forgiveness: Give first-timers priority boarding
One of the best ways to get the most out of Southwest is by getting a place near the front of the line. Ensuring a comfortable seat is something that happens in a much different way on other airlines, but is also very important to customers. Since this can truly make or break a first time experience, it’s important to give customers the ability to grab the seat necessary to equalize the experience with other airlines. Failing to check-in on Southwest in a timely matter can put a customer at the end of the line, and usually in a middle seat at the back of the plane. Southwest doesn’t need to give “A-List” (first boarding group) priority to newbies, however, introducing temporary forgiveness into a first-time check-in process so customers won’t drop out of the “B group” (second boarding group) would allow customers better seat selection. This may also expose benefits rather than weaknesses in this new type of boarding process.

2 Hold their hand: Educate first-time customers at every touchpoint
Literally walk a customer through the process. It’s important to evaluate how education is implemented digitally via the web and messaging, however a human touch can extend this experience to cover gaps for certain new customers. One of Southwest’s brand attributes is hospitality and extending this principle through a “gate concierge” will resonate with other services like leather seats and outlets provided for all of their customers. United offers this for their elite tier members and a similar approach could be translated to physically meet new Southwest customers at a gate to cover tips and tricks with the new process. This concept can be extended digitally to empower and connect employees and customers.

3 Recognize: Thank and listen to first-time customers
Before a flight departs and after a plane lands, flight staff recognizes elite members and advertises their rewards credit card. Imagine if these airlines spent some of that energy recognizing newcomers who are willing to give the brand a try. There is an opportunity to create a community of people who also appreciate being part of an airline and welcoming others who join. A successful community requires constant feedback from customers to not only inform the organization but also communicate back to the customers that they are being heard. New customers will especially have objective views of a new experience and it’s important to tailor the feedback experience to how the new customers are interacting. If a first-timer has a great experience, it’s essential that there is as little friction as possible between them and spreading the word to their sphere of influence. These experience shares are where the stigmas will begin to break down.

Each FTUE technique hinges on the prerequisite of identifying new customers. One easy way to start down a better path to an improved FTUE is by putting a system in place that is smart enough to alert staff to these new customers. Flyers who are new to the rewards program can easily be identified now. There is enough data available to go beyond that and extend Southwest’s current positive experiences through more touch-points early on… and other brands as well.