On December 15, I flew home from Louisville, KY, to my home in Kansas City, after speaking at a conference. As usual, I flew Southwest (I’ve been a loyal Southwest customer for over a decade). Unusually, the flights were badly delayed – both my flight from Louisville to Chicago, and from Chicago home. What made these delays unusual were what I call “incompetence delays” – paperwork not being ready at takeoff time, gates not being ready, etc. The flight from Louisville to Chicago takes about 45 minutes of flying time and we spent about an hour and a half sitting on tarmac at both ends of the flight.
I was lucky. I got home that night, albeit four hours later than planned. Watching the current Southwest Airlines meltdown makes me realize how lucky I was – I was seeing a preview of things to come. Right now, Southwest’s biggest problem isn’t getting thousands of people to their destination. It’s not the thousands of bags sitting in airports. It’s not even the outdated computer infrastructure that, according to reports, is the cause of this mess. It’s trust.
Every purchase requires trust. When we purchase a meal, we are trusting that the food will be as represented on the menu, that it will be prepared under safe and sanitary conditions, and that it will be edible without making us sick – or worse. When your customers purchase whatever you have to offer, they are trusting that you will fulfill your promises. Some purchases require a little trust, some require a lot – but all require some.
There are few expressions of trust that are more personal than purchasing a plane ticket. When we purchase a ticket, we are trusting that the airline will get us where we are supposed to be going – and get us home (on a round trip ticket) – in something approximating the schedule of the ticket we bought. A quick search makes it difficult to find an actual number of stranded passengers, but the flight cancellations are running over 2,000 PER DAY, as Southwest runs about 1/3 of their schedule to try to get back on track. Conservatively, I’d say that over 100,000 passengers either didn’t make it to their Christmas, or didn’t make it home. That’s a lot of blown trust.
Southwest’s management made it worse, in my opinion, by blaming “weather” and “staffing” for the issues. The winter storm certainly played a part – but when other airlines recovered within a day or two, it became obvious to customers that something was wrong with Southwest specifically. Numerous social media posts from pilots, crew, gate staff, and other Southwest employees saying that there were planes at the airports and crews ready to fly them, but that the computer system couldn’t match them up, went viral, as did one video of a pilot helping to load bags onto this plane so that he could take off.
So, what did Southwest do wrong here (other than just have a meltdown of their system, that is)?
- They knew a problem was coming (with their system), and kicked the can down the road. Southwest’s new CEO, Bob Jordan, only took over ten months ago, so this was a problem that he inherited. The previous CEO had been in the job more than a decade without making updates, even as the airline grew. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t pretend to know how to fix a software system like this – it’s unbelievably complex. But I do know that other airlines have done it, and Southwest did not.
- They didn’t have a backup plan. If you have a system in your business that you know could cause a problem, but you haven’t been able to address it or fix it yet for whatever reason, you should have a backup plan other than raw panic.
- The worst, however, is that they weren’t honest. The excuse was “weather and staffing.” This angered many of their employees, who posted messages all over social media that “staffing” was not a problem – they were there, planes were there, but Southwest’s antiquated computer system was unable to match planes to people. Hence, many of the flights that are going out on Southwest right now are being done by hand – a tedious and time consuming process. Ultimately, the corporate spokespeople lied to their customers (this, by the way, can be blamed on the current CEO). I don’t know how many times I have to say it, but I’ll say it again: NEVER LIE TO YOUR CUSTOMERS. Today, the truth always gets out, and gets out quickly. You can either embrace transparency or have it forced upon you. Southwest chose to have it forced upon them.
I should point out here that Southwest’s front-line people have always been terrific to me. They have been kind, fun, personable, and to a person dedicated to getting me and my bag where I needed to go. Once, after waiting an hour and a half on the tarmac at Kansas City to fly to Vegas (weather related), the pilot came on the intercom and said, “Hang on, folks, they just gave me the go-ahead and I’m getting in the air before they can take it back. This is gonna be fun!” What followed was the quickest takeoff I’ve ever experienced in a 737 and one of the quickest flights to Vegas (the captain then said, “There are no speed limits in the sky.”). My criticisms are in no way aimed at the people at the airports and on the planes. However, this is out of their hands.
So, what happens now? It’s hard to say. This episode has thrown Southwest’s viability into question. Many formerly loyal customers – myself included – will be switching to other airlines (my go-to now is Delta, if you were wondering). The real costs to Southwest are going to be monstrous. There will be refunds, travel reimbursements, and luggage reimbursements (there are going to be thousands of customers who never see their luggage again, bet on it).
Then there will be the costs of doing what they absolutely have to do now, which is updating their IT infrastructure. Fixing problems at emergency speed is always far more expensive than fixing them on your own schedule – and we all know that updating IT systems usually creates more short-term operational issues. And we haven’t even discussed the likely government actions and fines.
The biggest cost will be in customer trust going forward. How many people simply won’t fly Southwest again? I have a flight booked on them in late January to go to California. I’m going to be watching the situation as it develops, and if I don’t see them running mostly on time in a week and a half, I’m going to cancel and rebook on Delta.
How Southwest will recover from this is yet to be determined. But, I can give you some good advice on how to retain customer trust in your business:
- If you see a problem coming, address it before it becomes critical. Even if it’s an order that you see going out wrong, catch it and fix it NOW.
- Have a backup plan for when anticipated problems happen.
- Be HONEST and own the problem. The truth will get out anyway – it might as well be you telling it.
Whether your business is large or small, the trust of your customers is your biggest asset. Protect it with everything you have.