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Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Not your fault, but your failure to recover.

On a busy travel day today, the lines everywhere were longer than expected – at the parking lot, at check-in, (though Southwest reacted well by bulking up on agents to service the rush) and at security. (The TSA contractors were not responsive to the unexpected demand level)

Planes flew on time, but travelers had to hurry more than they usually would, and those that usually had time to spare found themselves rushed.

As I sat in my “cattle car” seat in row 2, one of the last exasperated travelers boarded the plane in a sour mood.

When he was greeted with a pleasant “Good Morning” by the flight attendant, he looked past her, down rows of full aisle and window seats, and grumpily replied, “It doesn’t do any good to pay for premium boarding when there’s 900 people in the security line.”

A great example of how, in service environments, the mere presence of other customers can impact the experience.

In this case, a customer played his role, paying $10 for premium boarding so that he didn’t have to check into a flight at 6:15 AM on a Sunday to get the seat he wanted.

In this case, he found himself foiled by variability of demand for the service he was using. The unexpected volume of travelers (though not quite the 900 he claimed) put him far enough behind schedule that he wasn’t able to take advantage of the premium service he asked and paid for.

This led to a negative outcome that Southwest didn’t create. Still, the customer’s perception was one of unfairness of outcome. In his eyes, he paid for something and it didn’t work.

What is a service provider to do in this case?

Most hide behind fact that their process was fair, replying to these complaints that the service success is contingent on the customer playing their part in arriving early enough. Since he was late to the gate area, they couldn’t hold the seating option he desired and proceeded with boarding. In this case, the Southwest attendant hearing the complaint didn’t react at all.

Of course, whether the process was fair or not doesn’t much matter.

The customer has a negative perception of the value of the offering, and will be less likely to use it in the future. Given that this traveler is likely a reasonably frequent traveler, this is an opportunity to create long-term loyalty (and revenue) by delighting him - recognizing that although it wasn’t the fault of Southwest, the traveler started his day with a negative perception of the experience.

Extra care & attention to his needs while en route, a book of drink tickets, heck even a 5-pack of free premium boarding upgrades – given that their cost is essentially $0 – all likely would have improved a negative perception about a service failure southwest didn’t create.

Even though your service process may create fair outcomes, remember to pay attention to how you respond to customers who have negative results – whether you caused the issue or not, these are still your customers to help recover and delight.

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