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Scott McKain

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Is Southwest just flying on their reputation?

One of the three Destroyers of Differentiation identified in my book, “Create Distinction,” is that “familiarity breeds complacency.”  In other words, the more I do business with you — and become accustomed to how you engage me as your customer — the greater the likelihood that I will take you for granted.

However, the inverse of that maxim is true, as well.  The more I am your customer…the more times I choose you over the competition…the probability that you will become complacent in how your treat me and value my business is exponentially enhanced.

An article in today’s Wall St. Journal makes me wonder if that same phenomenon is occurring at what was one of my favorite companies – Southwest Airlines.

This report by Scott McCartney on “The Best and Worst Airlines” reveals a few interesting facts:

  • Only United was worse than Southwest about canceling scheduled flights.  
  • Only Frontier and United were worse about involuntarily bumping passengers from oversold flights than Southwest.
  • And…in a real shocker to me…Southwest was the absolute worst among the major airlines in losing or mishandling customers baggage.  Southwest’s rate of lost baggage was, for example, TWICE as bad as Delta’s.  The report states, “On average, at least one passenger ends up missing a bag from every Southwest flight.”

I guess if “bags fly free” on Southwest…you get what you pay for.

(Reminds me of organizations that want free or cheap speakers for their conference…but, I digress.)

(But first, here’s another aside…I love how United excuses their poor performance regarding on-time arrivals: “Chicago-based United said it was hit disproportionally hard by the winter weather.”  So, it didn’t snow at Delta’s hubs in Detroit and Minneapolis?)

SWA PlanesThere’s no doubt that Southwest has built something that I called in a previous post about them a “reservoir of goodwill.”  The jokes they told during pre-flight safety announcements, their low-fare structure, and the general positive attitude their team seems to display about their jobs and their customers has made Southwest stand out from the competition.

Distinction, however, is not a permanent condition.  It requires constant work and growth…even if you’re Southwest.

I’ve been on several flights lately where the flight attendants had an decidedly non-Southwest attitude.  Either the humor in their pre-flight presentations was nonexistent…or their patter had a kind of snide, smartass attitude that wasn’t previously a part of their style.

It seems to me that in the old days, Herb Kelleher would’ve stepped up and said, “Here’s what we’re going to do to fix the problem.”  However, in the WSJ article, every proposed formula to solve the challenges that Southwest is facing is answered with devices that are being “considered”…or “studying equipment”…or perhaps “adopting” a different approach…but not one solution is definitively stated.

Perhaps Southwest is just hitting a minor lull in service and performance.  However, it also might be that they have been so successful for so long that they have become complacent about their customers.

Yes, their distinctive execution in a difficult marketplace has created that reservoir of goodwill for them.

However, unless replenished, even the deepest reservoir will eventually run dry.

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Scott McKain is a business leader, bestselling author, and Hall of Fame professional speaker.
Scott's latest book, "The Collapse of Distinction: Stand Out and Move Up While Your Competition Fails" reached the #1 spot on Amazon.com list of Customer Service Bestsellers! He is the author of two #1 additional business bestsellers (Amazon.com & 800-CEO-READ): "What Customers REALLY Want" (currently available in trade paperback) and "ALL Business is Show Business."
He is the Co-founder and Principal of The Value Added Institute, a think-tank that examines the role of the customer experience in creating significant advances in the level of client loyalty, and has appeared on multiple occasions as a commentator and analyst on FOX News Channel. His platform presentations have run the gamut from the White House lawn with the President in the audience carried live on CNN and NBC's "Today" show...to a remote outpost near the Amazon...all 50 states, seven Canadian provinces...and from Singapore to Sweden...Mexico to Morocco.
An inductee into the Professional Speakers Hall of Fame, he is also a member of "Speakers Roundtable" -- an elite, invitation-only group of twenty of the world's top business speakers.