How a customer service project is helping Southwest Airlines realise its 360-customer vision

VP of customer support services talks through its latest customer technology transformation

Southwest Airlines has edged a step closer to a 360-degree view of the customer while also lifting employee engagement after deploying a new platform to improve customer service management.

Southwest Airlines VP customer support services, James Ashworth, told CMO at the recent Dreamforce conference the impetus for choosing Salesforce’s Service Cloud platform was in fact the airline’s staff. The airline is the fourth-largest airline globally and North America’s most flown, with 62,000 employees.

The wider imperative was Southwest’s three-pronged mission of delivering efficiency, lovability and profitability to the business.

“Ultimately, this turned out to be something that was better than just a tool for our people sitting in the customer service department,” Ashworth said.

Southwest debuted Service Cloud in early 2019 across three contact centre locations initially - Albuquerque, Chicago and Phoenix – using chat capability. This allows mobile app customers to interact with contact centre staff using chat capability. Today, the airline is seeing 30 per cent of such engagements occurring via chat.

In November, the team began rolling out Service Cloud to several more employees, and expects to have the platform in all contact centres by the end of Q1, 2020. This will see staff using the technology for all forms of service engagement, consolidating what was 15 systems into one.

Southwest Airlines is already a longstanding Salesforce Sales Cloud client.

“Previously, we didn’t have a ‘CRM’ solution. We had a homegrown loyalty tracking system we’d used for almost 10 years and it served us well. This allowed us to beef up our rep rewards program, connect with customers and show rep rewards points and travel journeys across multiple teams at Southwest. But as we grew, we knew we needed more,” Ashworth explained. “CRM and Service Cloud console gave us that opportunity.

“We’ll connect up Service Cloud with our partners who use Salesforce products, plus our corporate sales department, which uses a version of a Salesforce product as well. This will give us a full picture of customers and their journeys.”  

Defining the use case

Yet in the beginning, the use case for Service Cloud was narrowly focused on customer support.

“As we started to get more into it, and socialised the thought of what we wanted to do by bringing data to the frontline, we started to interact with marketing, corporate sales and more, and quickly realised some foundational data work needed to be done,” Ashworth said.  

“We partnered with technology and it quickly became much more than a customer service initiative. We now have multiple work groups we’re partnering with in order to make it a broader enterprise initiative.”

The ambition is to bring all customer touchpoints together, and make sure the data presented to staff and in the digital space ensures touchpoints become more relevant to each customer, Ashworth said.  

“It was important for us to identify a way to bring data that existed across multiple systems to life in contextual way for our frontline people to be able to serve customers and deliver the hospitality we want to deliver at Southwest,” he continued. “It took a lot of heavy lifting and collaboration across multiple teams to drive the point home. We want to do something that’s not only setting up our people for success, it gives them tools and details around customers to deliver hospitality the way we define it at Southwest Airlines. That is when customers and employees feel welcomed, cared for and appreciated.

“You really can’t do that unless you have information about those customers. Bringing these tools together allows us to do that.”

Data connection

Ashworth said the reason his team went for connecting the mobile app to contact centre staff first was because the mobile app already housed its own data set. This sat separately to the systems folks in the contact centre were traditionally connected to.

“We said let’s get the experience going inside the contact centre where we’re passing relevant data to reps to drive experiences. Since the mobile app housed data already, we could get our feet wet and start to understand how we could use the data in the most effective way,” he said.  

“Once we had chat going, we started to learn a lot about how customers think about interacting with us through digital channels. That’s the front-end side for the customer. But we also started understanding the relevance of data on the back-end side for the rep. And we have continued to build out the console in a way that makes sense.”  

Key to getting staff buy-in was including people in the build phase. “We had our frontline folks tell us where they wanted data to enrich customer experiences. That absolutely got us buy-in from the get go; they were the inspiration and we kept them engaged the whole way,” Ashworth said.

Another reason for adopting Salesforce was the vendor’s accessibility credentials. Ashworth, who is visually impaired and oversees several staff differently abled, said accessibility was a must-have.

“It was important to ensure we invested in tech that allowed us to continue to create a good work/life balance for those differently abled. Salesforce met that need,” he said. “Whether it’s because the vendor builds accessibility into the platform, or it’s built in such a way that it plays well with combination of tech features that support folks differently abled, that was key.

“We also brought those users in and kept them engaged along the way. They could say to us, this is working or not working for me, and if it’s accessible but not usable. There is a big distinction between the two. We wanted to focus on ‘usable’ as much as ‘accessible’. You’d be surprised how many vendors don’t have it.”  

Balancing efficiency, profitability and lovability

For Ashworth, the service overhaul is a big step forward in Southwest’s effort to be the most efficient, loved and profitable airline globally. With a customer support department responsible for handling about 30-32 million contacts annually, there’s a wealth of customer needs and demographics to cater to.

Measuring improved efficiency is a key metric being used to gauge the success of Service Cloud. Others include processing times, Net Promoter Score, and customer satisfaction. Southwest also measures touchpoints along the way – what it calls ‘moments that matter’ – to ensure it’s the most efficient at getting bags onto the belt, for example, or handling chat.

“These measures have evolved over time, but putting customer at the core and understanding their needs really drives what we do in our contact centre,” Ashworth said.  

Ashworth also noted different avenues Southwest is using to keep staff and customers engaged, such as ‘residents council advisory boards’, encouraging regular dialogue with frontline staff to understand how to make things better.

Having Service Cloud will also give the service team the opportunity to finally provide the data insight into why customers are looking for support.

“Because we haven’t had access to deep analytics prior to Service Cloud, we haven’t been able to do the job we want to do to inform the rest of the business about why customers are contacting us through multiple channels,” Ashworth said. “We want to talk to customers where they want to talk to us, but are there hurdles or other things getting in the way of the customer being able to do what they want to do in the digital space, for instance? Now we have the analytics tools, we can better identify where some of those roadblocks are. And we can inform our friends in marketing, technology so they can go and change things.

“This is centred around the customer and that does help deliver alignment across functions. Certainly in our world, data and what customers are telling us are very important.”

Wider vision

Meanwhile, Southwest’s ‘Customer 360’ vision is about being more customer centric whatever the engagement. And with more than 600,000 customers travelling with Southwest on a daily basis, there’s a lot of scope.

“There are multiple customer touchpoints manned by multiple people along that customer journey, and we believe every one of those individuals should have access to the same data and be able to use it in its most relevant way based on that touchpoint,” Ashworth said.  

“Today it [data-driven personalised customer experience] exists in corporate sales, and in charters; we believe there’s an opportunity in our ground operations and inflight experience even though we don’t have seat assignment. We know who the customer is and we believe there is opportunity to do things in that inflight experience to elevate it to the next level.”  

Read more: What Southwest Airlines is doing to retain CX leadership

From an omnichannel standpoint, Ashworth also flagged plans to invest in artificial intelligence-powered bot, enabling self-service.

“We’re looking at getting into social media if it makes sense for Southwest Airlines. Service Cloud enables us to do that in a seamless way with very little technical implementation,” he added.  

What’s more, there’s also the vital element of recovery in the airline space, something Ashworth again saw data-driven insight and more efficient service operations helping to address.

“It’s not always sunshine, so recovery becomes that much more important for us to separate ourselves from the competition,” he said. “Having data to understand each customer needing to be accommodated and dealt with allows us to get customers to where they want to be.”  

  • Nadia Cameron travelled to Dreamforce as a guest of Salesforce.

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