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Many Southwest customers unhappy with changes

As do an ever-increasing number of travel suppliers, Southwest has its own blog.

Sure, the "Nuts About Southwest" blog is largely self-serving, stuffed with predictably vapid musings by Southwest's managers. But by supporting reader comments to the blog postings, it does allow for direct interaction between the company and its customers. That kind of transparency is all too rare in Corporate America, and Southwest deserves recognition for going down what can be a rocky road.

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But interactivity, like democracy, is messy. If a company says "We're listening," it implies that they will respond, both in word and deed. Establishing that expectation and then failing to live up to it puts a company at risk of customer antipathy and lost business.

Judging from the responses to Southwest's announcement of its new initiatives to woo business travelers (business fares which feature priority boarding, elite frequent flyer perks, etc.), the airline has some soul-searching to do.

The November 7 blog entry, entitled "Getting Down to Business," consists of a description of the new direction by Kevin Krone, Southwest's marketing vice president, followed by, at last count, 247 comments from Southwest customers.

The comments run the gamut, from effusive praise to rabid anger. While it's impossible to fix the "average" sentiment, the following post by Back to American for Me captures the gist of the many naysayers' feelings:

"And to think, as a former AA Gold member, I was starting to fly Southwest more. No more! The new program is not 'enhancements'! I can see exactly what you are doing: steering the perks to your frequent and high-paying fliers; and devaluing your award system for average Joes. I stopped flying Delta because they essentially devalued my miles by half; I can predict that soon you will be blacking out all kinds of flights for the peons, and the A boarding will be mopped up by your precious heavy users. I like to fly Southwest only for two reasons: they are reliable, and their seating and rewards system treats everyone the same. Now that you have taken out the second part of the equation, I will go back to concentrating all my flying on American. It may not have friendly crews, but it does fly around the world and it generally gives me a decent—and truly reserved—seat. Its mileage program has become somewhat devalued, but now that Southwest is doing the same, why would I fly Southwest? I often find American beats you in fares to the markets I am going to, anyway. This is horrible news for a lot of people who luved Southwest. I am also going to get rid of my SW credit card. Bye."

Over the coming months, Southwest will also be gauging customer reaction according to a decidedly non-verbal metric: ticket sales. If the changes result in the sale of more tickets, at higher prices, then no matter how much grousing goes on in blogs and elsewhere, Southwest will judge the changes to have been successful.

In a recent interview with Business Travel News, a trade publication for corporate travel managers, Southwest chief Gary Kelly described his airline's new business traveler focus as follows: "I think we have more than our fair share of the leisure segment, with the historical one-size-fits-all approach that we've taken. We have declined in the past to offer choice for customized services to meet the road warriors' needs. We're now doing that." In other words, this is a strategy that assumes you can have your cake and eat it too. According to Southwest's blog site, many of its own customers are saying, "No, you can't."

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