Brand, Customer Service, and Travel or The Best Real Housewife EVER!
I fly a lot. I mean — a lot. I write this at an airport gate on July 28, 2016 and I’ve already qualified for next year’s A-list preferred on Southwest. That means 50 flights in just under 8 months. 50. And that doesn’t count last week’s emergency United flight from LAX; a flight that resulted because of a computer meltdown at Southwest.
With all those flights, all that travel, I have unique insights into customer service in an industry that is almost exclusively driven by those buzz words.
How do people pick an airline? Or a hotel? Or a restaurant? Or, for that matter, a photographer?
Part is price, of course. Part is brand experience. Part is need. But customer service ties into all those aspects of how people select a business partner.
That’s what a hotel, or airline, or photographer is — a business partner. Each of those employees — on some level — are direct partners to set you up for success (or, of course, failure).
Southwest is typically my favorite example of a big, service oriented company, that does things right. How did they build their brand? When you think of Southwest Airlines, what immediately comes to mind?
Before you answer, let me tell you a little story about when Southwest, in my brain, got it wrong. Then consider, just for a moment, the overall impact to their overall brand. I have two examples of getting it wrong, one big and the other (seemingly) small.
Let’s start with the small, because I actually think it’s the better example. The big example is for the next blog post.
The flight started like any other. “Group A, line up along the silver poles, in numerical order, A 1 – 30 on the left, A 31-60 on the right. Group B and C, please remain comfortably seated until we get the A’s on board, then we’ll continue with B’s and finally C’s….”
I know the speech so well this is written from memory, it is etched into my brain, along with my social security number, my date of birth, address, and where I eat sushi in various cities.
“A reminder, the FAA permits two carry on items, one for inside the overhead bin and the other personal item to fit under the seat in front of you….”
Tune out. This is a rerun.
I am A 16. I’m almost always A16. That’s because I fly so much, Southwest automatically checks me in and puts me somewhere behind the Business Select customers (A-1 thru A 15) and the regular A list customers. Those regular A-listers go in front of the people who paid an extra $15 for Southwest to check them in (Early Bird Booking), and the Early Birds go in front of the people who live at their keyboard waiting to check in at precisely 24 hours prior to the flight. In back of them are the regular people, and finally the last minute bookers that didn’t buy a Business Select ticket or bother to check in before getting to the air port. Lazy people.
All very straight forward, ordinary. Mundane.
“SIR! SIR!!!” (You couldn’t be talking to me, I’m going to continue to ignore you as I walk down the jet way, “SIR!!!!! STOP!” (What? Did you decide to be Donald Trump and profile me as a Muslim?)
“THAT BAG SIR” Gate agent glares at my second carry on, the smaller of the two, the one that goes under the seat in front of me, “THAT BAG WON’T FIT UNDER THE SEAT IN FRONT OF YOU. YOU MUST CHECK IT AND GET OUT OF LINE.”
Feet already had traveled half way down the jet way, which means this gate agent had left her post to follow me while every other passenger waited by the metal posts at their assigned slot. Fuming.
“I assure you, it does fit under the seat in front of me. I’m A-16, that means you know I’m A-list Preferred, which means I fly a lot, and know exactly what fits and what doesn’t”
“GET OUT OF LINE SIR. NOW.”:
I pull out my phone, not budging. I find a picture of the bag in questions, fit under the Southwest seat in front of me. Taken just in case I had this problem, and stored under favorites on my phone for easy access. I am PREPARED.
The gate agent glares at the photo.
“THAT PROVES NOTHING.”
I just look at her. She waves over a baggage guy.
“Please accompany this ….”
she spits out the word,
“….passenger to his seat and make sure THAT (points to second bag) goes under the seat.”
I roll my eyes, making sure she sees. I go to my seat, the one I always sit in, and throw the bag under the seat in front of me. The bag boy just looks and walks off.
Now, this pissed me off. But I swallowed it. I reminded myself the gate agent puts up with tons of crap from idiot passengers. I justified her action.
The passengers continued to load.
We took off.
About an hour into the flight, the chick in front of me pushes her flight attendant call button.
I have NEVER, in the history of flying, pushed the flight attendant call button.
Flight attendant clicks over, in her dominatrix heels, dramatically turns off the lit button, peers down her nose and says, “YES?” (Just like the gremlin bank teller in Harry Potter at Gringots.)
“May I have a diet Coke please?”
Flight attendant stomps off for a diet Coke.
Hmmmmm. Interesting. While looking like she wanted to dump the Coke on the chick’s head, she got the drink.
Another hour ticks by. Sure enough, the chick pushes the flight attendant call button.
Flight attendant stomps over.
“May I have another diet Coke please?”
And then something happened that made me realize what a magical moment this could have been for Southwest, instead of a missed opportunity.
“MAAAM,” said the flight attendant, :”THIS BUTTON IS FOR EMERGENCIES, NOT FOR ME TO FETCH YOU A SODA.”
Ohhhh, I thought, a spat! How cool on an otherwise boring flight. Maybe she’ll call the TSA to meet the flight when we land. DRAMA. They can put this passenger in the Gitmo detention camp and water board her until she confesses she’s whatever is worse that Al Qaeda.
“Really?” Replied the chick, who I will now rename the best, coolest, future Real Housewife star passenger ever, “if it’s for emergencies, why doesn’t it say EMERGENCY? Why, instead of saying emergency, does it have a picture of you — a flight attendant — getting a soda? I assume the soda is for me — the passenger. So, since that’s what it has as it’s universal picture, then I am guessing that’s what it’s for. Now, if you could bring that Diet Coke and have a little less ice, I won’t have to push it again so soon.” I do not believe the flight attendant ever brought the drink, but just turned and left. Future Real Housewife did not push the button again.
I almost peed my pants I was laughing so hard.
But what if this had gone another direction? What if the airline trained it’s staff to respond to passenger needs, even if that need is irritating? What if the flight attendant came over, got the Coke, perhaps delivered extra snacks, and provided a wow experience for that passenger? Instead, that flight attendant decided to argue a point that is silly — and up for debate — the exact use of the flight attendant call button.
Here’s why this is a big deal, bigger than the big deal example I’m going to give you in the next part of this series.
Southwest built it’s entire brand on being fun. When you think of Southwest, you are SUPPOSED to think of those singing flight attendants, and flying without the ATTITUDE, just the ALTITUDE, to quote an old advertising campaign.
What that flight attendant brought was the old attitude that past defunct airlines used to deliver to passengers. It was the attitude that put them out of business.
What that gate agent brought to me — arguing with me, even after seeing my photo — over my bag, was the same attitude I always received from Air Tran, now gobbled up by Southwest. Perhaps that was an old employee of Air Tran that didn’t get the new, “now we are fun!” memo?
As an event photographer, I work with the public as much as any flight attendant. Therefore, I get how someone, even someone who loves people, can get burned out and fried. But if your brand is delivering fun, no matter how much you want to give that participant a lobotomy, you can’t be snippy, snotty, or otherwise the average, typical, Thumbtack cheap photographer. You have to deliver that upbeat, high energy, passionate experience.
You must be bold, and not let your light be snuffed out.
Sometimes, you can’t do it. It’s 11:45 pm, you’ve been shooting for hours and hours, and you have a drunk in your face insisting on doing something you can’t, for one reason or another, do. Then what?
It’s amazing how much I have to run to the restroom at 11:45 pm. When they are in my face, insisting through slurred words that they CAN have a Jack and Coke in the photo because it just looks like Coke, I just say,
“Oh, my GOD, I am so sorry, hold on a sec….NATURE CALLS.” And I walk away. I stay away a few minutes, return fresh, and maintain my brand.
I’ve left many a drunk standing there wondering if I’m coming back. But who can argue with nature? It’s the perfect exit without saying, “LOOK YOU STUPID DRUNK, IT’S AGAINST YOUR OWN COMPANY RULES TO HAVE ALCOHOL IN THE PHOTO AND THEREFORE I CAN’T DO IT. IF YOU CAN STOP DRINKING FOR 8 SECONDS I CAN DO THE PHOTO AND THEN YOU CAN GO PASS OUT OVER THERE WITH 6 OLIVES DROOLED DOWN THE FRONT OF YOUR SHIRT, (AND I CAN GO TO BED.)”
Though that’s what I’m thinking, I just put my best sheep face on and excuse myself to use the rest room.
Let’s return to the flight attendant and the call button. Even if Southwest’s policy is that button is for emergencies, then change the picture on the thing to say “SOS”. Don’t have a line drawing of a flight attendant delivering a Jack and Coke. More, even if that’s the technical rule (and I’m not sure it is), then take a second from stuffing your face with pretzels and peanuts at the back of the plane while gossiping to grab a Coke for a a passenger that wants one. And slap that smile on your face and do it gracefully.
Why? Because that’s what your brand is: delivering ALTITUDE with out the ATTITUDE. Period. And if you don’t deliver that brand, a competitor (HELLO JET BLUE) will step in and take over.
You should know, Southwest. That’s how you gained your kingdom. It’s also one of the three reasons I fly Southwest so much my travel deduction triggered an IRS audit.
Size is totally everything. See! It fits.
By: US Event Photos