Southwest Airlines had a great new idea for customers (then it ruined things)

With many businesses, don't just listen to what they say. Watch what they do.
Written by Chris Matyszczyk, Contributing Writer

A touch desperate?

Screenshot by ZDNet

I have no strong feelings about Southwest Airlines.

Well, no strong negative feelings. Anymore.

Yes, the airline once unfairly left me behind at LAX, but I've forgiven it. Mostly.

And I've flown Southwest a lot in the past, always for short, utilitarian trips that were perfectly enjoyable.

Recently, however, the airline has admitted to its own tortured feelings. And failings.

It can't hire pilots and flight attendants quickly enough. Its technological offerings are still on the slightly dated side. It's also been one of the airlines that have cancelled far too many flights this year.

This may, of course, be related to not being able to hire pilots nor having the best technology.

I was positively moved, though, when the airline announced it had stopped to think about the people. It is, after all, the people's airline: no seat assignments and a general air of everyone being in it together.

Get Away. Really.

This time, Southwest had concocted a new type of fare. This is called Wanna Get Away Plus.

Yes, four words is a little much for a brand name. But this fare class will allow business types on a budget -- ergo, a non-refundable fare -- to make same-day changes without penalty. It will also allow, should you need to cancel, for the flight credit to be passed to a loved one. Or to a loved one your official loved one knows nothing about.

Though it's unclear how much more this Plus will cost, it's surely an exercise in actual human thoughtfulness.

A couple of people at the airline -- or perhaps a whole planeload -- asked themselves what customers would actually think helpful and found a way to deliver it. (For a price.)

Instantly, I felt more positive about Southwest.

No, please get away.

Yet the timing of this move has been a little awkward. For me, at least.

You see, Southwest has suddenly become extremely needy.

Also: Southwest Airlines has excellent news for everyone (except Bill Gates)

Where, in the past, I might get a couple of emails a month, offering some marvelous -- but inappropriate -- deal, March saw a frenzy.

It began with the offer of $59 flights that were "about to leave town." It continued with my last chance to earn a Companion Pass.

There was a reversion to offering low fares. Perhaps those $59 flights had endured engine trouble -- or a pilot shortage -- and the planes were still at my home airport.

Within days, Southwest was desperate to tell me that I could "save up to 40% on points right now."

Five days later: "$49 sale. You lucky duck!"

And we weren't even through half the month.

There followed entreaties to more low fares, a repeat of the points savings, an offer to earn 40,000 points toward my "next adventure", and then an offer to save 20% if I booked with points.

A total of 15 emails in 28 days.

None of these offers was compelling.

This all felt like a former lover who simply wouldn't let go. Even after they'd found someone else.

How much luv is too much luv?

Regular readers will know I have a certain concern about businesses that email you too many times. Yes, you can unsubscribe from the list, but then you might miss something useful.

Yet an email every couple of days says little about the receiver and a lot about the sender.

Also: American Airlines pilots want customers to know how bad things have gotten

Recently, I enjoyed a splendid customer experience at Best Buy. This didn't stop the company from emailing me 18 times in a very short period.

Email marketers don't seem to agree on how many emails are too much.

A customer, however, becomes attuned to how often a particular company chooses to contact them. When that rhythm is disrupted, you feel as if there's something wrong. With the company, that is.

It's not as if all airlines have done this. American Airlines, for one, has been pleasantly measured in how they've emailed me and what messages they've used.

This sudden neediness won't stop me from flying Southwest -- which prides itself on "LUV" -- should the occasion dictate. But it does make me wonder just how aggressively the airline will market itself in the future -- and whether that'll work.

Southwest enjoys an enormous amount of customer goodwill. It has, however, an imperfect record with email marketing.

Last year, Southwest kept emailing me to say I'd left a flight to a woebegotten city in my cart when I hadn't even contemplated flying to said woebegotten city.

This was deeply annoying. And now Southwest is coming across as a touch desperate.

It's going to be OK, Southwest. You're one of four airlines that, together, hold more than 80% of all the seats in America.

I have a feeling you'll do alright when the masks finally come off and business really picks up.

Unless you still can't hire enough staff, that is.

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