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Win customers back with stories, Part 2

Recently, I blogged about how Chipotle used a lovely story to help convince consumers their mistakes were in the past.

Since then, another example has occurred that shows how the same basic concept of storytelling can be applied in a different situation and in a different way.

It involves one of my favorite brands: Southwest Airlines.

Last week, Southwest experienced a calamitous outage in its computer system, causing massive delays, flight cancellations, and thousands of stranded and very unhappy travelers.

Personally, I was affected by the outage, coming home from Chicago on the day the outage occurred. I was lucky, however, and my flight was merely delayed by just two hours.

Few companies do as good a job at treating their customers, employees and brand as one big family as Southwest does. It shows not just in their communications and commercials, but in the way their employees treat customers.

In Chicago, where people were waiting in massive lines at every gate counter to rebook flights, grounds crews came into the terminal to offer water and peanuts to everyone in line.

Southwest has worked hard over the course of many years to establish that familial foundation with its customers. So when a problem occurs, they can fall back on that culture to show customers they care and that they’re sorry.

Of course, for all the customers who were affected by the outage, there were many more who didn’t happen to be traveling that day, and whose opinion of the company might have come down a few notches. How do they show contrition and dedication to those customers?

Through stories.

On Southwest’s community web site, the company kept an ongoing update of how they were dealing with the crisis and working to help all the inconvenienced travelers. They gave a behind-the-scenes look at their technology center and discussed what the problem was, how they were working to fix it, and how long it might take.

Sprinkled in amongst those updates were stories. Real, human stories that celebrate employees and customers and how, despite a very difficult situation, they banded together to make the most of it.

Unlike the Chipotle situation, Southwest’ crisis was unfolding in real time, and needed to be addressed accordingly, so a Pixar-style film wasn’t going to work.

Instead, they captured several stories that showed how people were dealing with the situation. Short, simple stories, even just a sentence and a photograph, that told the larger story. Videos submitted by customers. Anecdotes provided by employees.

The lessons other companies can take from Southwest’s experience are:

Establish a culture first

All the great examples of employees and customers working together would not have been possible if Southwest had not long established their unique culture. A good company culture cannot be faked or created in a day. But once it’s in place, it’s a never-ending source of good stories.

Capture stories

You can have the best stories of customer service in the world, but if you don’t capture them, no one will ever know. I don’t know how Southwest was able to get all the stories they did, but I seriously doubt they have PR and social media teams roaming the terminals of all their airports at all times.

More likely, they have made capturing stories a point of priority with certain employees, empowering them to submit stories, images and other assets to their corporate headquarters.

Be contrite and transparent

In Southwest’s situation, they likely didn’t have much choice, but it’s remarkable how apologetic they have been. They didn’t deflect blame, but stated in no uncertain terms that theirs was a crisis of their own making. They gave us an unvarnished look at the problem and a realistic view of how they were dealing with it.

And they framed it with real, human stories that said, basically, “we’re all in this together, and we’re doing our best to make things right.”

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