I recently had a less-than-stellar customer experience with Southwest Airlines.

I travel a lot, and am very loyal to Southwest. This experience was only noteworthy because the company has always given exceptional service … and I’ve come to expect no less from them. Southwest’s self-description certifies this mantra, saying, “We like to think of ourselves as a Customer Service company that happens to fly airplanes.”

The Fumble

Here’s what went down: Southwest released their usual weekly sale on a Tuesday. Spotting a great fare, I tried to book before it was a goner. I tried a half-dozen times to book a flight online that day, each time getting to the final booking page … only to have the site crash.

Frustrated, I dialed Southwest’s 800-number. Twenty minutes later I had never gotten through to a live agent (and no, I do not choose to be called back later at Southwest’s convenience).

Wow. Totally out of character for this company, which has a proven history of excellent customer service and annually makes “best of” rankings for customer experience.

The Recovery

I wasn’t annoyed enough to abort ship. The low fare plus Southwest’s stellar track record (up until now) was enough for me to stay the course. I managed to finally get my flight booked late that night.

Less than a week later, a shiny yellow envelope appeared in the mail from Southwest. Inside: four free in-flight drink tickets! Yippee!

To keep the record straight, I did not receive the drink tickets as an apology. Southwest didn’t even know they’d crossed me. I received the tickets as thanks for being a Southwest Visa cardholder (don’t even get me started on what an amazing deal those 50,000 free points for signing up have been). Their timing just happened to be superb.

I Still LUV You, Too

The point that shone through in all of this was that I forgave Southwest immediately, no questions asked. I don’t care why their site was down, or that I couldn’t reach a live agent. If it becomes a pattern, I will care and seek out answers, but for now I’m happy to see that day as one customer service fumble and just move on.

Was my forgiveness bought for $20? Nah. Those drink tickets were a serendipitously timed treat, no doubt, but that’s not the takeaway. This is: if you consistently give superior customer service, you can afford a stumble or two along the way. Your customers will still love you, will remain loyal to the brand, and will likely just forget it ever happened.

How to Right A Wrong … While Building Customer Loyalty

I’m not the only Southwest customer that forgives a stumble. On December 29, 2011, self-proclaimed Southwest fan B.J. Schone had a bad travel experience with Southwest (they ruined his luggage, and the Southwest representative at the luggage desk didn’t give a care). He wrote a letter to Southwest, and their wonderful reply wooed him right back into I-LUV-SWA territory.

Shone proceeded to forgive Southwest publicly with this tweet (quickly retweeted by @SouthwestAir): “Here's the response I received from @SouthwestAir and @SouthwestVerity - AWESOME! http://t.co/227bUELH.”

At the end of the day, both sides won. Schone has a check for a brand new suitcase, and the company has another great customer service story to add to its hearty stash. And I’m willing to bet that Southwest’s timely and generous response ensures that Schone will be even more loyal to the company than before the incident.

Becky Neely

Becky Neely

Becky is passionate about communications and is a certified grammar nerd. When she’s not hunting errant commas, she indulges her insatiable love of travel.