Southwest Still Has A (Good) Story
D+P Issues Management Reputation Management Thought Leadership

Southwest Still Has A (Good) Story

By Kevin Shinkle

Well, great. Here I was, the chief communications officer of Delta Air Lines, in the middle of an IT crisis that had grounded a thousand flights, and the guy in the seat next to me was on the phone, seemingly yelling at a Delta ticket agent as we sat in an immobile plane on the tarmac at Philadelphia International Airport.

I had seen him glance at the Delta employee badge dangling around my neck, so I could guess what was coming next. Sure enough, he tossed down the phone, turned to me with a huff before breaking into a smile and saying, “I’m just kidding. I love you guys.”

Amid the tumult and uncertainty of that day, I took some solace in knowing that the work Delta had done over the years to build one of the best-performing large airlines in the world and the efforts to relentlessly tell that story were paying off. Our customers were still with us despite the pain we were causing them.

I was mindful of that anecdote – and all that it said about brand equity — as I watched Southwest Airlines dig out from an historic systems disaster that forced the cancellation of nearly 17,000 flights last month and stranded droves of customers during the busiest travel season of the year. Southwest says the meltdown could result in a fourth-quarter loss of $825 million, and that’s before the huge capital outlays needed to bring its systems up to speed. Southwest’s shares fell, and federal regulators and lawmakers are scrutinizing the carrier’s cancellation and refund policies. Some pundits even wondered aloud if Southwest will survive.

My bet is that Southwest will be just fine.

The airline certainly has work to do, but Southwest still has the same employees who breathe life into its brand story every day on the ground and in the air. It still offers lower-cost fares, perks and a point-to-point network that so many people find attractive. And it still has decades of brand equity built up. In short, Southwest still has a story.

The airline has done a remarkable job of telling that story over the decades in consistent and often entertaining and quirky ways that put a premium on customer service stretching all the way to the carrier’s founding by the legendary and brilliant Herb Kelleher. Just a few months earlier, Southwest became the first major airline to end expiration dates on travel credits that customers get when a flight is cancelled.

Telling that story, of course, in new ways that showcase Southwest team members in action and considers the customers who didn’t get to grandma’s house for Christmas will never be more important. The airline must use video, print and social to show and not just tell how it’s taking the steps and making the investments needed to ensure this doesn’t happen again. It must provide customers with a glimpse inside all facets of the airline’s operations, so they understand how the issues happened but also have a stake in fixing them so they continue to feel part of the Southwest community. The airline must engage and reward customers.

And mostly, Southwest needs to remember and reinforce who it is and who it has always been, knowing that one disaster doesn’t have to permanently disrupt that brand narrative. All too often, companies change who they are post-crisis, often with disastrous results.

I learned the importance of reinforcing who you are during the Delta IT outage. I knew we had legions of loyal customers – like my friend in the next seat – but I also knew that loyalty was being tested. Using the Delta News Hub, we published a steady stream of content, including videos from CEO Ed Bastian, key information and stories about Delta people going above and beyond to address the needs of customers. We also took the critical step of offering refunds and $200 in travel vouchers to people whose flights were canceled or delayed at least three hours.

As a result, Delta’s Net Promoter Score was actually higher a week after inconveniencing hundreds of thousands of people than it was the week before.

The lesson: Delta was true to its brand story in its actions and then wasn’t afraid to communicate it. Now, Southwest has that same opportunity.

Kevin Shinkle

Kevin Shinkle