State of the Brand :: by Jason Voiovich

A weekly discussion of how branding affects the world around you.

Southwest Airlines, a death in the family, and core values

Posted on | February 5, 2010 | 4 Comments

Author:
Jason Voiovich
Ecra Creative Group

We recently had a death in the family.

Without going into specifics, it required an immediate trip from Minneapolis to St. Louis. Preferably by plane given the timing.

Of course, booking airfare last minute is not cheap, but many airlines offer what they call “bereavement fares” in order to make immediate trips a bit more palatable. So I called Southwest. Heck, they’re new to this market and known for their friendliness. Surely, they’d be the right place to call.

Wrong.

Here’s the conversation (no hyperbole):

Me: I need to arrange immediate travel for my wife due to a death in the family. Does Southwest offer bereavement fares?

Southwest: Uh, noooo. Our fares are already the lowest in the industry. We don’t offer any sort of discounts for things like that.

So I sent an email complaint to Southwest. Not because the company did not offer bereavement fares (I really don’t care, I just needed to know), but because the response was so out of character for Southwest’s brand image. The response I got back from the company of course apologized, but this isn’t so hard to get right the first time. In uncertain situations, It all comes down to core values for the company. And every interaction is a chance to build or destroy the brand.

Here’s how the conversation should have gone:

Me: I need to arrange immediate travel for my wife due to a death in the family. Does Southwest offer bereavement fares?

Southwest: I am very sorry for your loss. I know this is a difficult time for you and your family. Please offer my condolences to your wife. I wish we could help with a special fare, but we can’t do that. If you’d like to book the flight, I can help you – I am sure it will be very cost effective. Can I help you with that now?

Not so hard. Little things build brands. And little insensitivities destroy them.

If Delta could manage empathy (they did when I called), surely Southwest can too.

Comments

4 Responses to “Southwest Airlines, a death in the family, and core values”

  1. Lindsey Reynolds
    February 8th, 2010 @ 2:14 pm

    Hi Jason,

    I’m so sorry to hear about your family’s situation, and that you had a bad experience with Southwest. While we do not offer bereavement fares, we do strive to deliver the best Customer Service to all of our Customers. I’d like to put you personally in touch with one of our Customer Relations folks. Please feel free to contact me at Lindsey.Reynolds@wnco.com.

  2. Randall Hull
    February 10th, 2010 @ 9:28 pm

    Jason,
    I enjoy reading your postings and haven’t responded earlier. This is a great example of a missed opportunity to deliver the brand. I fly Southwest when ever I have the choice. Up to now they have made the experience enjoyable and “bent over backwards” for me a few years ago when I had a rather gnarly schedule between several cities. However, they really failed with you at a time you needed support. It looks like they are trying now, seeing Lindsey Reynolds response above. But timing is everything with brand experience.

  3. Derek (Akron OH)
    September 27th, 2010 @ 9:29 pm

    We unfortunately had to deliver our triplets last Thursday (9/23/10) – the best and worst day of our lives. We were forced to deliver because our son had a “cord event”, which caused him (in doctor lingo) to “expire”. In short, my boy died. We decided to bury him at “home”, which is St. Louis, and we are temporarily located in Ohio because I went back to school. We were originally going to have a funeral up here, and then have my family (my wife and I didn’t think we could travel because of her recent c-section), but our doctor released her to travel for the burial. My wife was cleared to fly, but on the condition of having a direct route. I called Continental, Delta, and a few other airlines, and not only did I get exceptional customer service, they gave me amazing rates, for myself and my wife, and also for my son to be sent home and have my mother in law accompany him on the way. The poor representative at Continental ended up needing me to consol her after she couldn’t find us a direct flight. She just started sobbing after I told her my circumstances.

    Unfortunately, the only airline that offers anything direct from Cleveland to St. Louis is Southwest. When I called Southwest, I got the most amazing, cold and robotic service. When I told the representative my story, he simply said, as if he was scripted or forced “sorry for your loss”. Of course the representative then bent over backwards by directing me to their “online fares” – which he “didn’t even have access to” so I could find a cheaper price. I was shocked by the nearly $1000 price to fly us home for the funeral and back. I looked at their website, and I reserved two tickets (at the same quoted price) under the “fun fare” package – hardly fitting. With two newborn girls in the NICU, every penny counts. I am just very happy that this airline bent to help me out in this time of crisis. Of course, if the doctor would have let me, I could have flown for a fraction of that cost on Delta or Continental – if only they flew direct.

    I will never deal with Southwest again – ever. I understand not offering bereavement for a loss of a relative, but for the two of us, with no other option, trying to bury our son, I guess I was just hoping for something different… I didn’t get the rude behavior from the representative like the person above did, but I guess Southwest does offer the best customer service, as long as it is scripted and robotic, and simply defers your request to the website – so that you will go there first next time and not bother their customer service representatives with silly requests like, can you help me and my wife travel to St. Louis so we can bury our baby.

  4. Derek (Akron OH)
    September 27th, 2010 @ 9:32 pm

    I would like to point out that other airlines did have direct flights, but not on the day – unfortunately for us, the only day we could bury our son. We also could have stayed an extra day or two, but with our two girls in the NICU, we simply would rather spend what little money we have to make sure we were close to them.

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Jason Voiovich
director_corporate marketing, Logic PD
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