Southwest Airlines Takes Customer Listening to New Heights

When it comes to acting on customer insight, Southwest Airlines knows that the sky’s the limit. So the airline launched a Listening Center this past May to help bring real-time social, industry, and operational data under its wing.

The Listening Center is an internal resource that combines social conversations, industry news, and operational data into one central hub, says Alice Wilson, social business advisor for Southwest’s marketing organization. To monitor what customers are saying about the brand, industry, or a specific topic, Southwest uses a keyword-based listening tool that pulls in mentions from social platforms like Twitter. As for staying on top of its operational information, like departures and arrivals, Southwest has a satellite Listening Center inside of its Network Operations Control center (NOC). This real-time insight allows the airline to identify issues and engagement opportunities quickly, Wilson says, and then react accordingly via the channels that customers are using. For instance, if a customer interacts with the airline via social, Southwest tries to respond to that customer through the same platform. 

“[The Listening Center] helps us connect the dots,” Wilson says. “We’ve always had a really strong focus on customer relations and resolution.”

One example of the Listening Center’s effectiveness relates to a “pretty long” tarmac delay a few months ago, Wilson says. Through the Listening Center, Southwest identified frustrated customers’ tweets and communicated with the NOC to implement proactive customer care. Not only was Southwest able to make arrangements to get the flight off the ground, Wilson says, but the airline also provided customers with an emailed apology letter and gesture of goodwill by the time the delayed flight landed. It wasn’t until Southwest launched the Listening Center, Wilson adds, that the NOC had this voice-of-the-customer representation.

“It just adds that context so that [the NOC staff are] able to make decisions not only [based on] what’s best for operations, but [also] what’s best for that personal customer touchpoint,” she says.

In addition to synching up social, industry, and operational data, Southwest can connect customers’ Twitter handles to their Rapid Rewards frequent flier numbers to provide more personalized service. Southwest just started asking customers to list their Twitter handles in their rewards profiles this year, Wilson says, and this extra bit of information helps the airline provide more customized care. For instance, the airline may see a passenger tweet, connect their Twitter handle to their rewards account, and look up if that customer has experienced multiple delays in the past. If so, the airline may offer a different apology gesture to that customer than it would to someone who has only experienced one delay, Wilson explains. 

Besides using the Listening Center to solve problems, Southwest Airlines leverages the hub to find opportunities for engagement and branding. In one case, a travel editor flying another airline was fed up with passengers ignoring carry-on regulations and bringing excessive baggage. So he encouraged people to tweet out pictures of passengers breaking the rules with the hashtag #CarryonShame. Southwest noticed that the hashtag was trending and promoted its first-two-bags-fly-free policy with a “Don’t get caught with #CarryonShame” message. 

But real-time data isn’t the only thing that enables Southwest to implement company-wide customer care. The airline also staffs its Listening Center with representatives from customer relations, communications, and marketing so they can share information across divisions and address inquiries quickly. To ensure that its Listening Center staff is aware of industry news and online conversations, Southwest hosts two briefings every day. The company also sends employees two daily messages—one in the morning and one in the evening—notifying them of recent airline activity.

“The customer feedback means something different to each group and can inform each group in a different way,” Wilson says. “From a social care standpoint, [employees] want to help assist and resolve. But somebody from the marketing team may be looking at that [data and ask], how do we alter communications to help these future situations?…The point is not to keep it as a silo.”

Although the Listening Center officially launched this past May, Southwest tested the hub for approximately nine months, Wilson says, during which it constructed the center, enhanced its data visualization capabilities, educated employees about the center, and planned processes for how to take action based on acquired insights. Architecture and design firm Corgan ended up designing the final product and construction service provider Structure Tone built it. The visualization displays are also supported by social media tool provider Crowd Reactive and Salesforce ExactTarget Marketing Cloud’s Radian6 Command Center.

But the airline’s efforts seem to have been worth the wait; as Wilson points out, today’s customers expect companies to show that they’re listening.

“It was important that regardless of what channel they’re engaging with us… we’re there, listening, and able to respond,” she says. “That’s what sets us apart. [It’s] that very personal approach to everything that we do, [that] very human approach.”

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