With a controversial move, Southwest Airlines tries for better customer service

Some research insists this is the path to disaster. Common sense might suggest otherwise.
Written by Chris Matyszczyk, Contributing Writer

Happier now?

Southwest Airlines

Has an airline made you happy lately?

Or has it driven you to levels of despair last experienced when, well, you last flew on an airline?

Too often, it seems that airlines promise to deliver heightened levels of service and only end up delivering heightened levels of angst and grief.

Oddly, though, one major airline has taken a large step toward -- perhaps -- relaxing your furrowed brow. A smidgen, at least.

You see, Southwest Airlines, which prides itself on smiles and jokes -- a little difficult when you're cancelling tens of thousands of flights -- just veered toward even cheerier customer service.

Perhaps you didn't think it was possible for Southwest to be any cheerier. Its staff are always so very happy, except when they finally lose their temper with some recalcitrant oaf of a passenger. (And who can blame them for that?)

Still, the airline just announced that the customer service voice you hear on the other end of the line -- if you can finally get through, that is -- will possibly sound even more inclined to help.

No, the airline didn't use those words. But, in a fit of holy humanity, Southwest announced it's closing its customer service call centers. Yes, all of them. Every single one. During the COVID-19 pandemic, many did already work remotely. But now, Southwest is fully committed to homespun service.

No longer will your customer service agent be huddled right next to another customer service agent, who'll be wishing they weren't huddled right next to anyone.

Instead, they'll be huddled next to their dog, their cat or a strange green statue they bought on vacation in South Carolina.

Now, why would Southwest do something like this? Is it to improve the level of customer service? It might be. Is it to make its customer service employees happier? It could be. Or it could be that the airline finds it so hard to recruit anyone right now that even the slightest additional benefit might tip the scales.

We're talking, after all, about the airline which suffers from 20% of its new hires not turning up on their first day at work.

Here's Southwest's statement alluding to such dire realities: "Evolving to a fully remote workforce brings increased flexibility, both in attracting and hiring new employees from across the country and in scheduling current employees who have worked at record efficiency in a remote work environment."

I fear those of excessively rational countenance will suggest this is a bad move. How can these people now be managed effectively? Moreover, some research suggests that working from home may dull your productivity.

As can be the case with research, other research insists this is bunkum. Which hasn't stopped some companies -- hullo, Apple -- from insisting their employees return or face ejection from the spaceship. 

Moreover, most of Southwest's biggest rivals, such as United, Delta and American, still herd customer service staff into vast bullpens of discomfort.

But is there, or has there ever been, a reason why those trying to please customers -- or at least calm them down -- should be sitting in call centers with cacophony all around them? Has it always merely been an attempt at management control? If I can see you, I know you're there, so you must be working.

At heart, what customers care about is whether the customer service agent actually comes on the line and whether they can then solve their problem, preferably with a touch of empathy.

There's at least now a chance that Southwest's customers will see a slight improvement in mood from their customer service agents.

You can sometimes detect what mood they're in, can't you? A little inflection here, a sigh there, a monotone that says, 'I don't want to be here.'

Now, you might even hear a happy bark or meow in the background. It'd be on-brand for Southwest, wouldn't it?

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