Maybe you've heard--a Southwest gate agent reportedly mocked a little girl's unusual name. Then she took a photo of the girl's boarding pass and shared it on social media.

Reprehensible, right? The girl's mother overheard it all, and later saw the photo online. She was aghast, and her story took off. Southwest acknowledged what happened and promptly apologized, but the story kept going this week.

Here's the next crucial chapter for Southwest, which just about everyone seems to have skipped over.

I'm so disappointed

In almost all the thousands of places where this story has been shared, the reaction seems to be largely defined by two things:

  • First, people attacking the girl's mother for giving her what is admittedly a bit of an odd name: "Abcde."
  • Second, people saying some version of: "I'm very disappointed in Southwest."

If you're Southwest Airlines, that second reaction is probably the best possible thing for people to say.

Because when you build a business or a brand, you also build a reputation that provides the context for everything else that happens around you.

If your brand is known for being friendly, or outgoing, or caring, people view what you do in any individual circumstance through that prism. And if you don't have a reservoir of positive brand equity, when bad things do happen, you don't get the benefit of the doubt.

Caring vs. commodity

This is why it's so infuriating to see some airlines rush to turn their businesses into commodities--offering only the services that their competitors offer, and benchmarking their pricing by following exactly what their competitors charge.

Think of what happened earlier this year when one big airline increased its checked bag fees from $25 to $30. Within a few months, all the others had followed suit.

Or the American Airlines flight attendant who told her company's CEO that their standards "suck" compared to other airlines, only to be told in response that American "work[s] really hard to match our service to our competitors, and they do the same to us."

For better or worse, Southwest Airlines doesn't really do that. It differentiates its service.

It has open seating that's largely first-come, first served. It rolls the price of checked bags into your ticket, unlike competitors that usually charge extra.

It includes the convenience of being able to make changes much more liberally than many other airlines.

Maybe you view these as free bags, and free changes, and not having to pay extra (usually) for a better seat.

Or maybe you view it as wasted money, if you've paid for a ticket that allows bags and changes but you have neither, or if you're annoyed by having to board last and winding up in a middle seat.

The opposite of love isn't hate

But regardless, it makes things a little bit different on Southwest. People have a reaction.  If they come back, they do so knowing that what they'll get is a bit different from their competitors.

And that's before we talk about things like the singing flight attendants. People either love them or hate them, but almost nobody is apathetic about them.

It's important. Because Southwest has nearly 60,000 employees. They're all human. Eventually some of them are going to make mistakes--even behave very badly.

Maybe they'll even shock themselves as they discover what they're capable of when they're not thinking (and don't realize that their momentary actions are about to go viral.)

But in those moments, if you're doing things right, you want your customers to think: "I'm disappointed."

Because that means that they had a higher expectation. And not, "that figures," which shows they just don't care.

Published on: Dec 1, 2018
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