A tale of two airlines – Or why every company needs a Chief Apology Officer

Southwest AirlinesWhen your company screws up majorly – what do you do?

You can play hardball and stick to the rules, only apologizing and compensating your customers as a very last resort. For a wonderful example, check out this story of a Continental flight that was delayed 32 hours while plane toilets malfunctioned so sewage was running down the aisles.

What compensation did Continental offer?

…32 hours into the whole ordeal, we are in Newark, ready for the fun of customs and immigration, and on our way out of the gate Continental issues the final slap in the facea voucher for one free drink the next time we fly with them! I wanted to tear it up and tell them where they could shove that drink, those bastards.

Continental HAS since apologized but I suspect that it’s just too little too late.

Alternatively, you can do what Southwest Airlines does and have a person in charge of apologizing:

No airline accepts blame quite like Southwest Airlines, which employs Fred Taylor Jr. in a job that could be called chief apology officer.

His formal title is senior manager of proactive customer communications. But Mr. Taylor 37, rail thin and mildly compulsive, by his own admission spends his 12-hour work days finding out how Southwest disappointed its customers and then firing off homespun letters of apology.

He composes about 180 letters a year explaining what went wrong on particular flights and, with about 110 passengers per flight, he mails off roughly 20,000 mea culpas. Each one bears his direct phone line.

I think that’s incredibly cool for a couple of reasons:

  1. Taylor writes homespun letters that carry his direct phone number. No pre-written form letters with the company’s 1-800 number on’em. Direct responsibility and accountability.
  2. These cases aren’t handled by lowly customer service reps who stick slavishly to company regulations and scripts – these are individual decisions based on what’s right and wrong in the given situation.

There’s also a Business Week podcast featuring Fred Taylor and here’s a story of how this works out in practice, from a traveler stuck on a Southwest flight that got delayed for 5 1/2 hours:

Bob Emig was flying home from St. Louis on Southwest Airlines this past December when an all-too-familiar travel nightmare began to unfold. After his airplane backed away from the gate, he and his fellow passengers were told the plane would need to be de-iced. When the aircraft was ready to fly two and a half hours later, the pilot had reached the hour limit set by the Federal Aviation Administration, and a new pilot was required. By that time, the plane had to be de-iced again. Five hours after the scheduled departure time, Emig’s flight was finally ready for takeoff.

A customer service disaster, right? Not to hear Emig tell it. The pilot walked the aisles, answering questions and offering constant updates. Flight attendants, who Emig says “really seemed like they cared,” kept up with the news on connecting flights. And within a couple of days of arriving home, Emig, who travels frequently, received a letter from Southwest that included two free round-trip ticket vouchers. “I could not believe they acknowledged the situation and apologized,” says Emig. “Then they gave me a gift, for all intents and purposes, to make up for the time spent sitting on the runway.”

I suspect that what really mattered here is both the formal apology and compensation that arrived a few days after the event, but especially the fact that the Southwest employees present handled the situation well. In Emig’s words the “seemed like they cared”.

Contrast this with the Continental sewage flight story above:

At one point I went up to the gate and one of the crew happened to be there. He was either the pilot or the co-pilot. I was trying to speak to the women behind the counter, telling them that we’d been waiting for hours and people were getting really upset about the lack of communication. This pilot stepped in and snottily told me that they were working on and I should just go sit back down. When I told him they needed to keep the passengers better informed of the situation he literally screamed at me, yelling “Don’t tell me how to do my job!” and then he stormed away. From that point on he earned the nickname Captain Customer Service.

There are two major points I’d like to make here:

1: Apologizing is good business.
Studies show, that a well-timed, honest apology from the company makes customers more understanding of the situation, less likely to cause problems and more likely to remain customers.

Studies from hospitals show that when doctors honestly apologize for medical mistakes, people are also much less likely to sue:

Colorado’s largest malpractice insurer, COPIC, for example, has enrolled 1,800 physicians in a disclosure program under which they immediately express remorse to patients when medical care goes wrong and describe in detail what happened. The insurer compensates patients for related expenses, including insurance deductibles for follow-up medical care; lost time at work; and baby sitters…

Buckley said malpractice claims against these 1,800 doctors have dropped 50 percent since 2000, while the cost of settling these doctors’ claims has fallen 23 percent. The University of Michigan Health System has cut claims in half and reduced settlements to $1.25 million from $3 million a year since developing a disclosure policy in 2002, said Richard Boothman, chief risk officer.

This runs counter to traditional thinking:

”Doctors worry that if they talk to the patient, they’re more likely to be sued,” Hanscom said. ”Our feeling is just the opposite. It’s the shutting down that angers patients. We’ve heard from patients in this situation that everyone almost shuns them.”

2: Employees who care handle these kinds of situations much better
This is crucial, because you can only care what happens if you’re happy at work. If people hate their jobs, dislike their coworkers and loathe their managers, there is no way in hell you can make them care about the job and about the customers.

When employees feel good at work, when they like their coworkers and, indeed, the company, they will go to extraordinary lengths to make customers happy. This means that any problems that do occur become nothing more than another chance to demonstrate good customer relations and make your customers even more loyal to your business.


Btw: I can’t believe I’m the first to suggest that after a flight where the toilets malfunction so sewage is leaking down the aisles, maybe it’s time Continental changed their name to Incontinental airlines. Ba-da-boom. Thank you, thank you, I’ll be here all week!

8 thoughts on “A tale of two airlines – Or why every company needs a Chief Apology Officer”

  1. GREAT stories – thank you, Alexander!

    Another point about being up-front when things go wrong: people start rooting for you to succeed. They get sympathetic instead of being pissed off. And that’s much more fun for EVERYone concerned!

  2. John: I’m really glad you liked it – thanks!

    Grace: Good point. You get them on your side trying to fix stuff.

    Apology Guy: What a great approach! And thanks for the link – great article!

  3. Personally, I’d be likely to use a company again even if their service was bad, if i got a personal apology for it. Makes it seem like they will go out of their way to stop it from happening again.

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