Southwest Airlines’ Awful Week Shows the Difference Between Customer Service and Customer Centricity

Even the best customer service can’t fix the damage done by company-centric decision-making.

Illustration by Joan LeMay.

Last week, I flew on Southwest Airlines for the first time in nearly a decade. Or, at least, I tried to. After numerous delays and hours spent stalled at the gate due to mechanical problems, I walked off my scheduled flight and booked myself a new ticket on a different airline.

For all my frustrations, I could not have had more pleasant interactions with Southwest’s customer-facing employees. They helped me find my wallet when it fell out of my pocket at the gate. They completely understood my decision to leave the plane, and wished me safe and happy travels. They even issued me a full refund — no questions asked. And yet, I am still unlikely to fly with Southwest any time soon.

Evidently, my experience was not unique. In the last week, Southwest has declared an “operational emergency,” been forced to cancel nearly 10% of its flights, and grounded its entire fleet for a morning due to a technical glitch. By some accounts, these problem stem from a chronic underreporting of mechanical problems going back years.

Southwest has a well-earned reputation as one of very few airlines that truly values good customer service. But, as last week’s events illustrate, customer service and customer centricity are not the same thing.

The difference between customer service, customer experience, and customer centricity.

In an organization that values customer service, employees in customer-facing roles are empowered to meet customer needs. Southwest’s phone representative issuing me a full refund on the spot is a great example of what good customer service looks like; it is not just about “being nice,” but also about empowering customer-facing employees to take positive and decisive action in the moment.

In an organization that values customer experience, every single customer touchpoint, from advertisements to online purchases to in-person interactions, are animated by a consistent understanding of customer needs and goals. The relative ease with which I was able to make same-day changes to my flights on Southwest’s website is a great example of what good customer experience looks like; it allowed me to achieve my intended goals easily and friction-free.

In a truly customer centric organization, every decision starts with a deep understanding of customers and their needs. This necessarily includes “behind the scenes” operational decisions like, “What should we do about this problem that a mechanic just reported?” — and even, “How many mechanics per airplane should we employ, and how should we work with them?” These decisions, which may seem several degrees removed from “customer experience,” often wind up having the farthest-reaching implications for a business and its customers alike.

How could Southwest, a company so committed to customer service, make the decidedly company-centric decision to ignore mechanical problems that might impact customer safety? Quite easily, it turns out. A 2015 Business Insider article speaks to how our decision-making can be distorted by the “empathy gap,” a cognitive bias in which “people in one state of mind fail to understand people in another state of mind.” For decision-makers whose state of mind is shaped by immediate, tangible pressure from their managers— but whose day-to-day interaction with customers is limited to summarized satisfaction scores and the occasional sanitized PowerPoint presentation— this gap can easily become an unbridgeable chasm.

This empathy gap creates a substantial risk that company decision-makers will yield to short-term pressures from their managers while destroying the long-term trust of their customers. (For another example, see Facebook’s shameful handling of “friendly fraud.”) The path to mitigating this risk is simple, but far from easy: shorten the distance between decision-makers and customers. Understanding customers must be part of everybody’s job — not just customer service representatives and product researchers. As former Google engineering leader and current acting director of the US Digital Service Matt Cutts said at O’Reilly’s 2018 Radar conference, “The number one bureaucracy hack we’ve discovered is to talk to users.” If talking to users can short-circuit the entrenched bureaucracy of the US government, imagine what it can do for your organization.

My partners and I at Sudden Compass have seen first-hand the incredible things that can happen when cross-functional decision-makers interact with customers and customer data directly. It enabled one of our CPG clients to unlock $300 million in growth from urban customers. It compelled a streaming music service we worked with to fundamentally rethink the relationship between music and podcasts. And it just might have saved Southwest Airlines — and its customers — from having a very bad week.

Have a story to share about how direct interaction with customers can overcome company-centric thinking? Want to learn more about how you can shorten the distance between customers and decision-makers? Drop me a line at matt@suddencompass.com — I’d love to hear from you!