Social Media Accelerates Opportunities for Improvement

Director Kevin Smith was deemed too fat to fly on a Southwest airlines flight this weekend. While famous in certain circles, he was on the brink of becoming yet another anonymous customer service casualty until he described his ordeal to his 1.2 million Twitter followers. This in turn generated traditional media coverage and a spike in is follower base to 1.6 million. Southwest thought Kevin was too big to fly? Well now they have a really big problem on their hands.

Southwest says they have had the same “customer of size” policy (I prefer the term “obese customer” – I mean, we all have a “size”, right?) for nearly twenty-five years. Is their policy fair? In this case, it doesn’t even matter. The problem isn’t the policy, it’s a breakdown in Southwest’s internal communications that got Kevin so upset. An organizational communication failure at Southwest became a customer service issue and its now been exposed to over a million people directly and many millions more through traditional media.

According to his own story, Kevin actually had THREE seats purchased (his family was going to travel with him, etc -- see the whole story using the above link) but plans changed and he was able to leave town on an earlier flight that had only one seat available. Again, according to his story, he explained the situation to the staff at the check-in desk, who assured him that there would not be an issue with a large man like Kevin taking the one seat. I’m guessing that no one at that desk thought to talk with the pilot of the plane, however. Whether justified or not, the pilot made a decision that was in direct contradiction to what Kevin had been promised moments earlier. Although Kevin is clearly a big guy, it seems that Southwest allowed its own policy to be broken by allowing Kevin (who had already bought many tickets) onto a different flight with one seat.

Internally, Southwest failed to consistently enforce/make exceptions to its policy. Although Kevin was in face-to-face communications during his ordeal, I think most of us go through something very similar almost every time we pick up the phone for customer service: We get bounced around from one person to the next without any one of them having legitimate context or history of our customer service issue. I had a similar situation with Verizon FIOS a few months back that caused me to drop their service entirely.

Social media creates an environment where only excellent organizations can thrive. And, in this case, a weakness in how Southwest handles situations like these was exposed. They tried to placate and apologize to Kevin, but with little success.  So what’s Southwest supposed to do? “Learn”, is my advice. In the context of social media, many organizations rightfully fear this exact kind of situation. But one of the understated benefits of the environment is that bringing these issues to the surface creates opportunities for improvement. This is an opportunity for Southwest to improve and undoubtedly make many other passengers (even those without 1.6 million twitter followers) happier with their service.

I’ve been reading that certain people and groups, like the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance will make the issue discriminatory one, but remember that the point of failure was first and foremost a procedural one. As the PR dust settles around this, I hope that Southwest are able to look at the issue for what it was and make the necessary adjustments.