Fred Taylor Jr.'s job at Southwest Airlines is to head customer service problems off at the pass. Ideally, he presents customers with a range of solutions before they even know that they have an issue - for example, by calling them to let them know a flight has been delayed or cancelled before they've left for the airport and letting them know their options.
To make that possible even in cases where thousands of passengers are affected in the event of a hurricane or snow storm closing an airport, Southwest has implemented an automated system for placing those calls and relaying the message with a mix of pre-recorded voice clips and text-to-speech software. The application combs through Southwest's operational databases to identify problem flights, looks up information on the affected customers, and sends notifications through Varolii, a service provider that specializes in automated customer communications by phone, text messaging, and email.
"We knew our customers were going into situations we didn't want them to be in, particularly at airports affected by weather," Taylor says. "Then we quickly realized, why does it have to be a weather event? We can notify them other situations as well." So the effort was expanded to include things like gate change notifications.
Taylor's title is senior manager of proactive customer service communications, but a March 2007 New York Times nicknamed him the airline's "Chief Apology Officer" for his focus on reaching out to customers who have been inconvenienced and offering to make it up for them - without waiting for them to complain first.
Yet Southwest was not a pioneer in automating its proactive communications; in fact, it was a little late to the party. Varolii had already signed up many of the other major airlines as customers, and Northwest Airlines was the first to implement real-time integration with the Varolii service. Delta Airlines, which was also a Varolii customer, purchased Northwest in October, and the two are in the process of integrating their flight notification applications (along with the rest of their operations). Other prominent Varolii customers in the industry include JetBlue and Alaska Airlines.
Varolii's Jeffrey J. Read, executive vice president for field operations, says Southwest became much more interested in his company's services following the publication of a Wall Street Journal poll that gave Southwest a relatively low ranking for flight notification services.
Taylor says Southwest prides itself on offering superior customer service and was chagrined to recognize that this was one area where it was falling short. Like most other airlines, Southwest has for years allowed travelers to register for flight status notifications. This system made it the customer's responsibility to request that service and to locate it on the southwest.com website, but it doesn't take much imagination to recognize that any traveler would appreciate getting a heads up that his or her flight has been cancelled.