Southwest Airlines CMO: “Removing False Hope is our USP”

In this week’s CMO Minute (fake interviews with real CMOs), we talk with David Ridley, CMO of Dallas-based Southwest Airlines. The quirky airline consistently wins passenger-satisfaction awards, despite its no-frills service.

BAC:  SWA won the American Customer Satisfaction Index once again last year. Two questions: 1. how do you keep doing it? and 2. isn’t it embarrassing to American Airlines that you keep winning their customer satisfaction contest?

Ridley:  Well, it’s not actually named after American Airlines.

BAC:  It’s not?

Ridley:  No.

BAC:  Oh, well then, I guess it’s a level-playing field. So how do you guys keep delivering the goods on customer satisfaction?

Ridley:  Yeah. Well, our people are really our secret ingredient. We hire great, positive people and give them the opportunity to do their best. But I think what we do best is make it clear to our customers what they’re getting.

BAC: You mean you manage their expectations?

Ridley: That’s right. If you define satisfaction as “experience minus expectations,” then to maintain great satisfaction, you have to make sure that passenger expectations are in-check.

BAC: Or you could improve the experience…

Ridley:  Oh man, that’s funny. Look, that’s just no going to happen. Do you know how much crap you have to put up with to run an airline?  Like four different unions, bureaucrats, airport commissions, weather…if God had meant for us to fly, he’d have given us wings. The fact that we can get you from Austin to San Jose for $49 is freakin miracle, man, but customers seem to forget that.\]=`23

BAC: So you’re saying that you want to remind them how reliable transport at a fair price, 2without a lot of fancy frills is the right way to go?

Ridley:  Exactly. On other airlines, the best passengers are always striving for upgrades or shorter security lines. That’s just false hope, and it works against them. We don’t focus on that stuff, so our passengers aren’t stressed about whether they’re going to get upgraded or not. We have removed false hope from the travel experience. That’s our unique selling proposition.

BAC: But doesn’t that bum out your customers?

Ridley:  On the contrary – they appreciate the honesty. The uncertainties of the travel business are innumerable. We do our best to mitigate them, but stuff happens, and people’s plans get upset. You can’t run an airline without screwing over thousands of your customers everyday. But when you minimize hope, you minimize disappointment.

BAC: So the sense of democracy among your passengers helps them deal with it.

Ridley: Yeah, and reminding them of how we’re different. Silver/Gold/Platinum on other airlines – that’s just the order in which they f*ck you. They treat maybe 10% of their passengers great, and the other 90% like they’re shitheads. On Southwest, everyone’s a shithead.  But we’re only going to treat you like a shithead if we have to.  And our customers get that.

BAC:  So “Bags Fly Free” is a subtle way of sticking it to the other airlines.

Ridley:  Just giving consumers the chance to ask themselves who’s screwing them and who’s not.  I think the answer is pretty clear.

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