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Thursday, October 1, 2009

Sometimes the carrot, sometimes the stick.

I commented earlier this week about the way Southwest Airlines understands the contribution customers can make to business productivity, and promotes that behavior in with incentives to make them more reliable as a service and more profitable as a business.

The online check-in process, asking customers to help clean up on late arriving flights, no fees for checked baggage, are all examples of this.

While these customer behavior modifications are often done using carrots in the form of rewards, today I experiences that they can also use the stick, when necessary, to suggest appropriate customer fulfillment of role.

I’ll preface it: I was not a good Southwest customer for today’s flight, starting with last night. I didn’t check-in online 24 hours ahead. I got busy this morning, and in fact, didn’t check-in until I arrived at the airport, 45 minutes before my scheduled departure.

I got the “C” boarding pass I had expected, but was surprised when the pass had no number. “Do you not give numbers to us delinquents in ‘C’?”, I asked the attendant who took my luggage. “Oh, that means that you’ll have to see the gate agent.” she replied. Faced with a new process, I was for the first time a little nervous about a Southwest flight.

At the gate, I learned that the last three boarding passes for every flight are printed without a number, so that the gate agent can inform late travelers about the merits of early online check-in, and that while not against the rules, counter check-in 45 minutes before a flight is frowned upon. They even went to the surprisingly honest extent of explaining that given the many flights that are oversold, Southwest likes to resolve the oversold situations as early as possible, and an early count allows them to do so.

Southwest works hard to make sure customers know their role in providing a quality service and contributing productivity while doing so. Usually, they use tangible rewards and monetary incentives to reinforce the behavior they desire. But it’s also refreshing to see them also reinforce the behavior by gently warning customers about what happens when they don’t participate fully as a Southwest customer.

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