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As Problems Persist, is Southwest Losing its Luster?

"I have had two enormous delays in 2 weeks with you folks. Plus, your customer relations phone # is always busy. You folks are slipping fast in the customer service rankings, and I am no longer a fan."

"Piece of advice spend less on commercials and lower your fare's (sic) so your commercials are true and not false!"

"Site isn't working so I called my "special" A-list member hotline. Wait time = 20 minutes. Amazing customer service. I wonder how long the wait to make a reservation is for the people they don't 'value.'"

No, these posts aren't from the Facebook page of a major legacy airline, a Delta or United or American. They're from the Facebook page of  Southwest—that's right, the LUV airline. Even worse, they were all posted within hours of me writing this post.

That's the kind of month it's been for Southwest. The criticism began when the March 1 launch of its new Rapid Rewards program—itself a source of grumbling among Southwest loyalists—brought Southwest.com to a halt. The outcry has persisted during the intervening weeks amid lingering website issues and continued disappointment with the revamped mileage program.

All of it has left Southwest—typically seen as the master of airline customer service—in unfamiliar, uncomfortable territory: on the defensive, faced with an onslaught of grumpy customers, and fighting off a creeping sense that maybe, just maybe, the airline has lost its touch.

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What Happened?

Analysts were pretty positive when the program was revealed in January. SmarterTravel's resident mileage expert, Tim Winship, approved, saying, "the program will offer solid value, a refreshing level of transparency, and a consumer-friendly expiration policy."

But the biggest change, a switch to a system where customers earn points for each dollar spent, was also the sorest point for critics. Winship summed up the backlash thusly:

"With earning rates keyed to both ticket prices and fare types, the new program is significantly more rewarding for travelers who fly on less restrictive, higher-priced fares (Business Select, Anytime) and redeem their points for low-priced Wanna Get Away tickets. That's by design. And it's both logical and fair, in my view. But for travelers who normally earn their points for cheaper, restricted tickets, the change will amount to a downgrade: They'll have to fly more to earn a free ticket."

Southwest's choice to attract business travelers with its new program meant degrading the program's value for its leisure travelers—who, of course, have always been the backbone of Southwest's business. Rapid Rewards, once egalitarian both in concept and execution, now sniffs of elitism, in stark contrast to Southwest's everyman image.

But the real kicker came March 1, when the launch of Rapid Rewards crashed Southwest.com. As if that wasn't bad enough, a separate telecommunications incident brought down Southwest's phone networks, leading to long waits at airport counters and, worse, on its telephone customer service lines. Not a good thing when droves of customers are calling with website problems and Rapid Rewards questions.

"You don't know how many people are going to go check out the new site on the first day," Southwest spokesperson Ashley Dillon told me. "We did a lot of communication so people would know the program was changing. Then, with the website problems, we had a lot of people calling, and so the phone lines were getting backed up."

On its blog, Southwest PR apologized and promised to do better. "To our fans, followers, and Customers, we know you expect great Customer Service, and that’s our expectation too," PR specialist Chris Mainz wrote the day after Rapid Rewards launched. "Yesterday wasn’t our best day, but today is looking better."

Problem is, the "better" part hasn't been easy.

Ten days after apologizing, Mainz was back, explaining why things were still unsettled. "If we were a sports team, you could say that we’ve been in a slump the last week and a half," Mainz wrote. Higher-than-normal phone calls and emails were clogging up Southwest's customer service channels, resulting in long wait times and even more frustration. Website "bugs" were still being squashed. Customers using older versions of Internet Explorer (IE6) were, at that point, unable to log in to their account. Mainz helpfully, if desperately, included a link so customers could upgrade to IE8.

Since then, Southwest has twice (March 21 and 28) had to apologize, via Twitter, for website outages. On Facebook, those same customer service notices, typically written with Southwest's trademark chipper tone ("all hands on deck!"), have only sparked more customer anger, like throwing rocks at a hornet's nest.

"We knew the first couple weeks of March were going to mean very heavy volume on our website and our phones," Dillon said, "but I don’t think you can prepare for some of the unforeseen tech issues that have come up." Dillon said the airline has people working on the tech issues 24 hours a day, but that it's hard to keep up with bug fixes and complaints while still operating 3,200 flights a day. "People are flying every day, and our website is where a majority of people (80 percent) book their flights, so when that has a problem or an issue it affects a lot of people."

What Now?

The prevailing sense, from Southwest, is that people will warm up to the new Rapid Rewards program with time. "The new program is beneficial for all customers," Dillon said. "It might be more beneficial for business customers, but ... you still get points even for the lower-priced ticket." She pointed to some of the new benefits available through Rapid Rewards, including international travel options and the fact that customers can bank their points and don't have to start over earning credits every time they earn a free flight. The new program also eliminated mileage expiration dates.

But while the new program may please analysts and pundits, the verdict is ultimately the consumers' to make. Based on the feedback Southwest continues to receive via its Facebook page and its blog, more time is needed for people to get comfortable with the new program.

Southwest's real problem isn't so much what it has done, but the fact that it—Southwest—is doing it. "I do think our customers have high expectations," Dillon said, "but I think that's a good thing. They let us know when we don't live up [to those expectations]. They keep us on our toes." Dillon said Southwest takes all the criticism to heart, and that they're trying to take care of the people who reach out. But even with a 24-hour "command center" up and running, glitches and complaints appear to be outpacing Southwest's ability to respond.

Ultimately, much of Southwest's recent troubles amount to growing pains—this is no longer the "little airline that could." Southwest is the biggest domestic carrier in the U.S., an accomplishment that comes with consequences: The bigger the customer base, the harder it is to make each individual feel, well, individual. That's true of Rapid Rewards, which has left long-time loyalists feeling left out, but also of Southwest in general. Fans of the carrier worry it's becoming just another big airline. And, to a point, they're right. For Southwest, the challenge is being a big airline that delivers personal customer service.

"We are growing and evolving, but we haven't given up on the business principles we were founded on, which is great customer service," Dillon said. "Our employees take pride in knowing they have to deliver good customer service, because that's what our customers expect."

But as Southwest's rough month demonstrates all too clearly, that's much easier said than done.

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