SWA vs Kevin Smith (or the power of social media)

Posted by Gina Rosenthal in social_media, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

In case you missed the drama over the weekend, SouthWest Air was embroiled in a social media and customer service nightmare with director Kevin Smith.

Here’s how the story was reported:

Smith was thrown off an SWA flight for being fat. He started tweeting right away. He was offered a voucher, which he refused. He finally got home (on another SWA flight). He tweeted and made a podcast. SWA put a post on their blog defending their actions. The media (and social media fanboys & girls) sided with SWA, and painted Smith as an angry fat guy.

Here’s the timeline, according to Smith’s podcast(s):

  • Smith had purchased 2 seats, he does this because the tickets are cheap and he likes a barrier (probably from fans.  I know I’d talk his ear off and probably embarrass my son to death! Come on, we all know how geeks are and sitting next to a captive Smith would be like nerd nirvana. I get why he buys a barrier seat!)
  • He had a chance to catch an earlier flight. He actually chatted with the gate agent about how sure he’s a bit overweight, but he can buckle up and lower the armrests. She put him on the plane.
  • When he was called to board, he asked about getting his money back for the unused seat, which seemed to aggravate the new gate agent.
  • When he got up to the plane, some guy asked another SWA employee if Smith was “revenue”. They wanted to be sure he had paid for his ticket, and wasn’t traveling on vouchers. I guess they were close to some ratio they had to meet.
  • He sits down, and buckles in, and the original gate agent comes to escort him off. He shows her that the arm rests could go down, but it doesn’t matter. He gets booted for the “safety” policy.
  • He waits for over 10 minutes for the gate agent to come deal with him. From the sounds of it, the conversation got heated. And remember, Smith is a storyteller by trade. His tweets about not throwing a fellow fatty under the plane were priceless.
  • Smith is tweeting the entire time. SWA tweets back, and it sounds like they were able to get someone on the ground to go apologize to Smith. (He admits he wasn’t really reading tweets, he was writing them).  But it was too late, the damage was done.
  • Smith gets on another SWA to go home, using both seats. Another plus-size lady gets in the third seat on the row (that’s right, there was now a fat buffer seat for two passengers).
  • The lady gets pulled off the plane by an attendant, but she comes back. Smith learns later that the lady was told she should be more considerate of other passengers, and purchase two seats when she flies. Even though there was a fat seat purchased in the row in which she chose to sit. For the record, this seems to be what really set Smith off. He said all he could think of was his daughter – what if someone did this to her?

So lets look at the performance problems here:

  • Is the policy the problem?
    Many posts have been written about how the enforcement of this policy is at the mercy of the gate and flight attendants. Should there be a weight or girth size stipulated that kicks off the buy 2 seats safety policy? Is going by the handrests going down enough? Is it possible to enforce the policy in a fair manner to customers?
  • Is execution of the policy the problem?
    Was Smith kicked off for a safety reason, or would returning his ticket have made that flight below the percentages set for revenue? Was there any reason to pull the woman on Smith’s second flight aside and shame her, since there was a paid for “safety” barrier seat? Is this a training issue, or a hiring issue (don’t hire mean people!)?
  • Was the social media reaction adequate?
  • Is responding to an irate customer who is tweeting his/her frustration with standard corporate-speak really engaging? Should you always engage? This is customer service 101, you let the irate customer get it all out until they are calm enough to reason with. Then you follow up on whatever you promise to do for them.
  • Did SWA have a contingency plan for when one of its highly controversial policies?
    All they had to do was google (or search on Metafilter) for posts of how horribly this policy has been implemented in the past, were they ready for this?

Wrapping it up…

I’m thinking of this from the engagement piece. We have this powerful, powerful tool that we can use to connect and engage with our customers. Guess what, sometimes customers get pissed off. Sometimes for very good reason. Do you know what is going to make them go all Kevin Smith? Do you know how to react when they do? Do you know how to use the feedback from negative experiences to improve the experience of ALL of your customers?

For the record, I like Smith’s work. Most of it (most of it – come on a DONKEY!! WTF!!). And he is my son’s idol (again – a donkey?? come on help the moms out a little here Kevin!). I think my appreciation of his work is what connected me to his network, but his passion for seeing things set right really makes me helped me connect his problem to problems I am sure to face in the future.

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