The Kevin Smith affair generated tons of media coverage, much of which wasn’t very kind to Southwest. What was the biggest lesson of that experience?
I think there were several lessons learned here. We have over a million Twitter followers, a strong presence on Facebook and our blog, filled with great advocates that love what we do. We have all these channels in place and they’re very robust. But these channels didn’t get to Kevin Smith the way they would to a typical customer.
If this situation happened to someone who didn’t have the volume of tweets coming back at him, we might have been able to defuse the situation a little bit more efficiently. But with the sheer volume of content online, I’m not even sure he saw that we were reaching out to him via Twitter. That was one of the issues.
But honestly, trying to engage a person online who doesn’t necessarily want to engage online back was a challenge. With most people, if you say, “please DM [direct message] me,” they see that and they do, and you’re able to solve their customer service issue right then and there. That wasn’t the case on that Saturday night.
I think another lesson was learning to know when the conversation was over. I think we did the right thing there. We came out, we apologized, we stood by our policy and we acknowledged that it was implemented incorrectly (in our second blog post). We refunded all of his travel. And then it was over for us.
But when we ended the conversation, it wasn’t necessarily over for him. And that’s fine – to let him have his time to vent, to talk to his audience, and have a voice, that’s perfectly acceptable.
You guys have cultivated a very distinct personality through your blog, tweets and YouTube videos. And the title of your initial blog post, “Not So Silent Bob,” had that cheeky voice your customers recognize. It was very on-brand. But some people perceived it as “snotty,” because they weren’t as familiar with that voice. Do you think you misread your audience here?
I think that’s exactly right. We used our typical voice in that first blog post and now we’ve gone back and realized maybe that wasn’t the appropriate voice. Maybe we need to look at that a little more thoroughly – the title, all that stuff with more of an outside perspective. We’ve gone back and done “lessons learned” and case studies already, and that was one of the things we looked at, making sure that voice is appropriate for a Southwest audience that gets us and loves us, but also an audience that isn’t as familiar with who we are as a company.
Was this an instance where a more old-fashioned, corporate press release-style voice would have been more appropriate?
Yeah. And we’ve had that feedback. That was the other really interesting thing about this. I saw everything that was posted online about us – the good, the bad, and the ugly. And it was a huge learning opportunity for all of us. But I think not just us, but a lesson for every company who has an online presence, and every person who’s sitting on the other end of some really hateful tweets about how to handle this. And to expect it.
What’s your take on how the media treated the situation? Do you think they were fair and balanced about the whole thing?
It’s tricky. I think a lot of them didn’t get all the facts. People are pretty speedy to report these days on blogs, on social media, on all channels. I even saw some blog posts where people were saying that if they were me they would have had that first blog post approved before they posted it and I’m like, “Really? You think I didn’t get that approved!?” But when you get down to the meat of the story, I think most of the reporting was right.
Have you personally spoken to Kevin Smith? Where did the relationship leave off?
For us it ended Monday. This all happened Saturday night. Sunday I posted my first blog post. And then Monday we were actually able to get the right phone number for him. Because a lot of – I hate to use the word – celebrities don’t have the right phone numbers in their reservation. It’s their assistant or talent company or whatever.
So we finally got the right phone number for him and were able to reach him and our VP of communications had a great conversation with him about the policy, how we implemented it wrong. And then we came out with that final blog post. And for us that was the end factor. He wasn’t quite satisfied with that final blog post but we were.
Southwest has set the bar high for airlines using social media to communicate with customers. But have you set impossible expectations now that people expect you to be accessible 24/7?
Part of our job is managing those expectations. But to be really truthful, I personally don’t feel we can offer our best customer service via Twitter. I think we can be alerted to customer service issues via Twitter but more often than not, if we see an issue on Twitter, we take it via email or some other medium where we can really dig in.
We’re also blessed with being a domestic carrier so we don’t have red-eye flights. Our timeframe is a little bit different than some of our competitors just because we don’t fly internationally. Our Twitter operating hours are about 5 a.m. to about 11 p.m. and we’ve gotten to a place where we encourage all our employees who use Twitter to be monitoring. A lot of them even have my phone number. So we’re a big group of Southwest eyes looking out.
How has Southwest’s massive social media presence generated some ROI for the airline? How do you measure success?
More than anything it’s allowed us to communicate with customers in spaces that they’re communicating in already. We’ve had these kinds of excited fans since the ‘70s, it’s just the ways they’re sharing their excitement that’s changed. Having tools like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and our blog allows us to see and share all that content with everyone else.
In terms of metrics, we’ve done some source coding, which gives us a picture of who is clicking through our tweets or Facebook status updates to Southwest.com, and then maybe making a purchase. That’s something that we look at but it’s not necessarily driving our strategy of being online.