Get Your Customers to Improve the Customer Experience

Southwest Airlines did the impossible with their customer experience. Just not in the way most people think.

Yes, they have impeccably trained staff. Yes, they get you to your destination on time and without losing your luggage. Yes, they have the best ticketing policies in the industry.

But that’s not what I believe is the real magic.

Look, every airline would agree, there’s one touch point they have no control over. And that’s how their customers treat each other.

Despite their best efforts at staff training and friendly policies, all it takes is one jerk on the flight to ruin the experience for everyone else.

An average airline says, “Nothing we can do about it. We’ll just keep doing our best and the customers will see that we didn’t do anything wrong.”

An exceptional airline like Southwest says, “Let’s get in front of this problem and stop it before it happens.” And so they did.

Like magic, all your fellow travelers become courteous and helpful. Instead of tapping their foot and huffing impatiently while you struggle to stuff your bag overhead, it’s likely the person behind or in front of you will offer to help. Same goes for exiting the plane. When the “fasten seatbelt” light dings off, instead of being the starting gun for a mad sprint to be first off the plane, everyone happily takes their turn.

Southwest took the two most stressful parts of flying, getting on and off the plane, and made them pleasant experiences that’ll restore your faith in humanity.

How’d they do it?

By harnessing the power of the Benjamin Franklin effect.* Which, in short, is a cognitive bias that causes people to like someone more after they do that person a favor.

Southwest starts before you even get on the plane with their boarding process.
Click here to watch a short video explaining how they board.

Here’s what’s important in that video. They only have one numerical marker for boarding positions every five numbers or so. (1-5 here, 6-10 here, and so on) Which means you have to interact with your fellow flyers by asking them what number they are to figure out exactly where you belong in line.

This accomplishes three important things:

  1. You have to acknowledge and speak to your fellow passengers. Looking someone in the eye and engaging them makes them human. And it’s much harder to be rude later.
  2. By asking a simple favor, “What number are you?” your flight mates are now more predisposed to like you.
  3. The person next to you in line will be the same person you’re in line with until one of you takes your seat. Which means all through the boarding shuffle this unspoken relationship takes root and waits to manifest through courteous actions.

So, what’s the take away?

This won’t replace good old fashioned customer service procedures. But if you’re looking for the advantage in your category, this is the kind of thing that’ll edge you ahead. 

If you can figure out even the smallest way for your customers to do a favor for one another, you’ll control the impossible. Your customer experience ratings will soar. And you’ll bring just a little bit more magic to the world.

– Zac Smith, VC