Customer Experience

Connect with the Customer! Southwest Airlines Leverages Big Data and Social Media to Improve Its Customer Satisfaction Levels

Teresa Laraba, SVP of Customer Relations for Southwest Airlines, and Jason Schneider, SVP of Sales for Clarabridge, discussed the use of social media in handling customers and how big data can improve brand satisfaction.

Jason Schneider: As a veteran of the customer care industry, how has social media impacted the Southwest business?

Teresa Laraba: It has impacted it greatly. We were one of the first airlines on Facebook, because it fits so much with our culture and our family and fun atmosphere that Southwest has in the industry. So our Facebook fans grew very quickly, and we’ve had the same phenomenon with Twitter. We’re actually in the process of hiring 29 social care reps who are going to be housed in customer relations and will monitor the social channels, which are being handled by only four people as of now. If they see a hot item come up or if they’ve got someone who’s a real influencer, they will privately message that person and see if we can resolve the situation out of the public eye.

That sounds like a great way to figure out who are these people and what are their social identities, so you can marry that with their Rapid Rewards or something of that nature.

We’re not quite that far, but we do have what we call a “listening center” where we have Radian6 and other products where they can watch the conversations happening. And we’re working on a customer relations management tool where we’ll be able to tie that person to their Rapid Reward account as well as deliver that up to the customer service employees, who could see that customer and know what their Facebook and Twitter influence is. That’s probably still about two two years off, but we’re at least starting with the listening center and the ability to engage more with social media, and we definitely now have a formal social roadmap.

“We want to be able to engage as well as be there to answer any concerns that people have. We’re trying not to use [social media] as just a way to solve complaints, but a way to engage with the audience.”

How is your team at Southwest engaging with customers in real time across social media channels? With the 29 social care reps, what would be an essential channel to you outside of Facebook and Twitter?

There could be some Pinterest or some Instagram, but so far Facebook and Twitter are the predominant ones at this point.

And the 29 social-care reps represent a big team. Are they embedded in the traditional care centers or are they outside of that?

They will be embedded in customer relations, which is our call center that’s staffed with about 350 people in Dallas. They will get an all-encompassing training about all of our products and capabilities to resolve issues.  And they will be nearly 24/7, because even though 29 sounds like a large staff, there’s shift work and days off that you have to account for.

Moving on to customer attention, how has your team acted on customer intent to purchase or a need for service or assistance?

If you look at where people have banded on the website and look at conversion from a sales perspective, marketing has all the data, but they inform us. So right now, we’re struggling with customers who reach out to to solve something and then they can’t, or they try to self-service and they can’t. We’re looking at why a certain percentage of them then have to turn around and call the call center, because obviously our self-service tools for the depth of the information available on isn’t thorough enough. So it’s that type of data that we share between each other to make sure we are serving the customer with what they need based on what their behavior is showing they want.

On the social channels, are you looking for the customer intent to purchase on Southwest or customer intent to purchase elsewhere?

We’ve only used it once to run a sale to actually advertise and try to drive purchase, but we do watch for trends around if there’s a good vibe about a sale and a lot of good conversation around it. But we have not gone out and purposely tried to use that as a way to drive intent. Now it has driven intent because when you have a goodwill moment or a good story that goes out, you get a lot of media or social attention, which then drives conversation and sale.  But we haven’t used it as a way to purposely go out and make that happen as far as purchase yet, but we will further down the road.

So you’re not driving a conversion process via social?

That was not the initial goal. We know that social media can do that, but our goal first is to connect with our customer and use it as they’re interacting with us, versus turning it into a sales channel and potentially turning people off because of that.

So what are some of the best practices that your team has implemented for social media consumers who expect rapid responses?

One is the fact that we have been housed in our customer relations department versus just our traditional call center. They get the escalated amount of training and have the tools and knowledge to solve any problem, so you wouldn’t have to escalate it beyond the person that’s interacting with you socially. We’ve acknowledged the fact that the current staffing of four people may give us the chance to head off most of the complaints, but it doesn’t give us a chance to engage. So we want to be able to engage as well as be there to answer any concerns that people have. We’re trying not to use it as just a way to solve complaints, but a way to engage with the audience. And I think our listening center is something that not many airlines are doing. We just opened a new building which is where our primary dispatch – or what we call “op-center” – is, and we’re actually tying them into what we’re seeing from a social-media perspective. Because if you take the recent shooting at LAX as an example, that hit Twitter before the command center in Los Angeles knew about it. So how do you harvest that to make sure the operations center knows that there may be something going on within the industry or at an airport that could affect our operation?

“We are starting to get our feet wet with using big data to be more specific on a customer segmentation or on a customer specific.”

So how has big data played a role in both analyzing the data and in improving customer satisfaction for you?

Well, we have just really started to play with it. The customer relations management project that I talked about earlier is getting information on our customers to look at the segments of them, their behaviors and their travel to try and communicate with them on a more personal basis. We have just started to dive into that in the last year and I’m very excited about what we’re seeing. So we are starting to get our feet wet with using big data to be more specific on a customer segmentation or on a customer specific.

And what does big data mean to you? 

Big data to me is every customer that flies Southwest Airlines, and if we have some way of knowing if they’re a flyer and we have some way of collecting how often they fly and how they purchase, because there’s even a decision to make about people who fly you once every three years. You want to be able to start to get a history, and build that data so that you can be informed and know what to do with it. So that’s the way that I interpret big data, which may not be the same as a technological person does. 


Teresa Laraba
Teresa Laraba is the Senior Vice President of Customers, which includes the oversight of Customer Support & Services, Customer Relations & Rapid Rewards and Customer Services. Her responsibilities include understanding and advocating for the needs of customers, setting and delivering on customer service expectations, executive oversight of two corporate initiatives (International Travel and the Reservation Replacement System project) as well as driving the delivery of customer experience improvement plans. Teresa began her career in El Paso, Texas as a part-time Customer Service Agent in 1984 and has held numerous leadership roles in both El Paso and Dallas before she transferred to work in Southwest’s People and Leadership Development department, again holding several leadership roles. She returned to her roots in the Ground Operations department in 2000 as Senior Director of Ground Ops Training and Airport Solutions, eventually becoming Vice President of Ground Operations. Teresa holds the role of champion of  customer service at Southwest Airlines and works to ensure that legacy continues for many years to come.  Her background working as a front-line employee serves her well as she leads and oversees the delivery of customer service at Southwest Airlines.

Jason Schneider
As Senior Vice President of Sales, Jason Schneider is responsible for delivering Clarabridge top-line growth numbers globally for the company. Jason brings 14 years of sales experience and leadership to his role. While at Clarabridge, Jason and his team have been responsible for the accelerated growth of the company’s revenues for the last few years. He established a world-class sales process, people and organization to support customers, prospects and employees. Prior to Clarabridge, Jason served as Director for Sales for Comverse Inc. and CSG Systems. In addition, Jason brings excellent technical and financial skills to his role based on his product management experience at Lucent Software Products Group and financial experience at Lucent’s Kenan Systems. Jason currently sits on the Education Committee for the Customer Experience Professionals Association (CXPA).

Visit Argyle Executive Forum's CUSTOMER EXPERIENCE LEADERSHIP FORUM - San Francisco in San Francisco, CA on Feb 27, 2020

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