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Rich Tehrani

Those of us in the CRM world have long had a few superstars, and we use them the way English teachers use The Great Gatsby or Macbeth — companies that you could always trot out to support any point you’re trying to make on proper customer service, customer-centrism, CRM, Putting The Customer First, The Shocking, Little-Known Business Secret That Customers Don’t Like Being Treated Poorly, or whatever terminology you choose.

Amazon.com is one of those companies. Enterprise Rent-A-Car shows up in quite a few CRM textbooks, as does department store Nordstrom, which earned itself a place in CRM lore simply for taking back four tires a customer wanted to return and reimbursing him. Nordstrom’s doesn’t sell tires. But by heaven they took them back.

Gordon Bethune put Continental Airlines in the constellation. L.L. Bean, of course, has long been legendary for customer service. And there was Southwest Airlines. If you Googled “Southwest Airlines” and “bad customer service” you got that page saying maybe if you remove quote marks you’d get more — some, any — results.

Southwest patriarch Herb Kelleher was a CRM writer’s godsend. He did everything we suggested companies do — and it worked. If we needed a Potemkin Village to show A Happy CRM Workers’ Paradise, we took them to Southwest. Kelleher’s understudy Colleen Barrett said things like “Other airlines can’t do what we do, it’s too simple.” Hey look — the flight attendants are wearing hot pants, serving wine coolers and laughing.

A little remembering of the passengers’ names here, a dollop of turtle blood soup there, nuthin’ fancy here at Southwest, we’re jest plain folks tryin’ to do the right thing and customers ate. It. Up. All it resulted in was a skein of profitable quarters unbroken back to the Wright Brothers. See? See? We CRM writers crowed. Do what we say, put the Customer At the Center of Your Business and you, too, can Dominate Your Industry!

People would go out of their way to fly Southwest. Family members would be told to move to a city serviced by Southwest if they expected visits. People would take Spring Break in Minneapolis instead of Ft. Lauderdale because “Southwest flies to Minneapolis.” Somewhere out there, I know it, is a child named “Southwest.”

Then this reporter dropped out of the CRM biz for a while, moved to the Mediterranean coast of Turkey and ran a coffee shop. Where we practiced good CRM, of course.

A couple years ago, I took a job writing about CRM again — it’s like riding a bicycle or prison tattoos, you never forget — and assumed All Was Well with my pantheon of CRM saints. Hey Amazon.com was still as good as ever, why would anything else change?

Then I heard the rumbles. Faulty inspection reports. Unconfirmed sightings of a disgruntled passenger. Southwest spoken of in something less than reverent tones. I… okay, I ignored it. I didn’t want to know. I avoided. I clinged. Hi, I’m Dave and I’m a willing ignorer of faults in my favorite companies.

But there was no avoiding The Wall Street Journal’s March 8, 2008 article entitled, “Southwest’s Record Safety Penalty Strains Relations With Regulators” (www.tmcnet.com/1913.1), whose opening paragraph read “The government’s proposed $10.2 million penalty against Southwest Airlines Co. for maintenance lapses has strained the carrier’s relationship with regulators and threatens to hurt its image as a pioneer in efficient, passenger-focused operations.”

Evidently, according to the Journal’s information, Southwest knowingly flew 46 older-model Boeing 737s without performing mandatory structural inspections. The Federal Aviation Administration unleashed the dogs to go in, secure a beachhead, kick butt and take names. The troops stormed United first out of sheer habit before they rerouted, checking and double-checking their directions the way a pizza delivery guy would recheck an order for three large pepperoni and ham pizzas with extra cheese to a synagogue.

Now, this reporter doesn’t pretend to be an airline flight safety expert. (I do pretend to be a 23-year old blonde named ‘Nautie Pixie :),’ but that’s another story and has nothing to do with this one.) Be the results of the investigation as they may, what interested me was Southwest’s CRM reaction to the imbroglio.

Isn’t that a great word, “imbroglio?” Try working it into a conversation this week.
It’s not even that I’d ever assumed Southwest was perfect. I’m sure they have their issues, it’s CRM axiom that all companies do, and that, in fact, when a customer has a problem with you, that’s a Golden Opportunity to bind that customer to you like Krazy Glue.
Southwest officials swore like rappers that it was not, repeat, not a flight safety issue. Fine. Let’s take their word for it and see it as a customer service issue, not a flight security issue. As Southwest has been such a holographic example of CRM from Day One, I, and the rest of the fraternity, assumed they would knock it out of the park.

The chalk in this situation, how we draw it up at practice, what Paul Greenberg and Ye Lesser Gods of CRM tells you to do with disgruntled customers is to feel their pain, acknowledge the problem, keep the customer informed of efforts to rectify the problem. Offer the customer something tangible to let him know you care — another hamburger cooked properly, frequent flier miles, something in your wife’s size, whatever the situation calls for. This is called Winning Over A Customer.

And this works because it’s a well-kept secret that pretty much everybody except the guy who’s going to audit your particular tax return wants to like people. Really. Everyone wants to be the beneficent doler-out of goodwill, pat the cowering minion on the head and say “On your feet, my good man, let’s not have it again, shall we?” That doler is won over to the dolee’s business. You see somebody going out of their way, missing lunch, making a call after hours just to fix your problem — you’re morally obligated to shop from that place again. This is a matter of established Conventional Wisdom.

Southwest had a Golden CRM Opportunity to do this: to win over customers en masse. I mean, when you’re the airline industry’s unchallenged poster boy for customer service, everyone drops what they’re doing and looks to see how you handle a genuine brouhaha.

That’s another great word. For extra points, use in the same sentence with “imbroglio,” like “There was a brouhaha in Madame Eve’s imbroglio on the south side last night.”

So how did Southwest handle it? They bombed. Big time. The company launched its own investigation “into its interpretation of the FAA’s guidance,” the Journal reported, insisting it was “at no time” operating in an unsafe manner: “It also released a statement from former federal crash investigator Gregory Feith, concluding that the structural cracks ultimately discovered on some of the planes didn’t ‘pose a safety of flight issue.’” They hired Bill Belichick and Dan Rather as their new spokesmen to reiterate that they were really in the right all along.

Look, we all need lawyers. Some of us, and I don’t mean to asperse, but some of us like lawyers. A fine, reputable woman of my acquaintance voluntarily married one. But we do not want somebody to talk like a lawyer when all we really need to hear is “Hey, whoops, my bad, won’t happen again, promise, 10 percent off all fares for a month, and an extra cookie for every flier.”

Southwest came across — and again, I’m not sayin’ I know for sure, ‘cause I don’t — but Southwest came across as more interested in C’ing their own A than apologizing to customers. Okay, basically anybody who gets on a plane in the first place has a greater amount of faith than a garden-variety atheist needs to not only believe in God but send money to Jimmy Swaggart in the bargain, we all know that there’s no such thing as a risk-free flight, and we know that no airline perfectly follows e-v-e-r-y single cotton’-pickin’ line item on e-v-e-r-y single maintenance form (“Two wings? Check.”). We get that. What we don’t get is an airline more concerned over how it looks than how we feel.

Because, friends, CRM is about feeling. That’s right, Morris Albert-style wo wo wo feeee-lings. It’s about how you make the customer feel. And you have only so many opportunities to do that. You have your Everyday Interactions — “Thank you for chosing us, have a nice flight,” “A wine cooler? Thanks” — which Southwest aces, and you have your imbroglios, your brouhahas, your Major Chances To Speak To All Your Customers, not to mention your Golden Opportunities.

Southwest was so good sweating the little stuff, we thought they’d knock the big stuff cold. After all, they were a CRM Champion. They’d had precious few opportunities to win customers over in crisis situations because they were so good, they’d had to practice damage control about as often as Brett Favre has had to pay the bill in a Green Bay restaurant.
But they didn’t. They got technical when they should have been expansive. They nitpicked when they should have grinned sheepishly. They sent out the lawyers when they should have sent out free drinks.

In short, they struck out, and there is no joy in Mudville.
The author may be contacted at [email protected].

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