A marketing campaign by Southwest Airlines to mark the growth of its Facebook fan base to 3-million turned into an unmitigated PR nightmare last Friday — one that does not appear to be ending any time soon for the airline, which is typically lauded for its stellar customer service ratings.
Southwest offered discounted flights that day to celebrate the social media milestone. Unfortunately, customers who tried to take advantage of the offer found themselves victimized by a computer glitch that made multiple bookings and, worst of all, took multiple charges on the customer’s credit card. In some cases, customers were dinged 10 — or even 20 — times.
Southwest sprang into action to clean up the mess. By Sunday, it had issued all the refunds, it said. It also offered to pay for any overdraft fees that debit card users might have incurred from the glitch.
But There’s a Catch
However, for some customers, all of this action has not translated into actually getting a refund. It is a particularly worrisome state of affairs, said Kate Hanni, founder of FlyersRights.org.
Southwest customers fly the airline because they are looking for discounts, Hanni told CRM Buyer, and it can be safely assumed that at least some of them are on tight budgets.
All refunds were processed Sunday morning, insisted Brad Hawkins, Southwest spokesperson.
“We exported all the necessary data to financial institutions,” he told CRM Buyer.
The problem for those consumers who have not yet received a refund might be on the bank’s end.
“Some institutions take eight to 10 days to issue a refund, so it might take that long for some customers to get their money back,” said Hawkins.
A PR Nightmare
This combination of events is a PR nightmare for Southwest, David Johnson, principal of Strategic Vision, told CRM Buyer, “especially now, as they are focusing on rebranding Air Tran.”
The period of time surrounding a merger is unusually sensitive, and that is when glitches are likely to happen in service, he noted. That is also the time when the company is most in need of customer testimonials to bolster marketing campaigns — not to mention goodwill — to overlook any problems that might occur.
That will never happen with a problem of this magnitude though, said Johnson. “Waiting eight to 10 days for a refund for something you never purchased in the first place is unpardonable in the customer’s eyes. He won’t care who is at fault here. He just won’t ever go on the Southwest site again.”
The Extra Mile
The situation is not fair for Southwest, though, which is known for going the extra mile or three in its interactions with customers, maintained Hanni. “I rarely get complaints about Southwest.”
In fact, is quite impressed with the way Southwest has handled customer issues over the year.
“Their customer advocacy program is second to none in this industry,” she said. “It would really be tragic if their reputation was completely ruined by something like this.”
Chances are, that won’t happen. Customers tend to forgive even the most egregious mistakes if the company delivers a solution with a huge apology — and hopefully additional discounts or perks to make up for the hardship. Certainly Southwest is putting a lot of oomph when it comes to the former.
“We really are sorry this happened and worked as fast as we could to fix it,” Hawkins said.