The 2010 CRM Service Awards: The Service Elite -- Southwest Airlines

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Waiting on hold is unpleasant—a sore neck and a sweaty ear do not a happy customer make. Yet that discomfort was exactly what many potential Southwest Airlines (SWA) passengers were experiencing in early 2009 when the airline, recognized for its customer service excellence by sources ranging from Corporate Research International to J.D. Power, decided that extended hold times flew in the face of the company’s reputation. 

With more than 3,100 flights each day, SWA has a large customer base. Part of SWA’s strong commitment to service means using live agents instead of an automated system in its contact centers to answer each of its 110,000  daily calls. “People like talking to people,” says Lance Morton, director of SWA’s operations support and services department. What they don’t like is being left on hold—and the policy made for a drastic increase in time-to-answer during spikes in call volume. 

For a new, cost-effective way to serve customers, SWA turned to Virtual Hold Technology (VHT), a provider of interactive voice response (IVR) callback software. With VHT, any SWA customer who has been on hold for more than two minutes is given the option of remaining on the line or hanging up to be called back when her turn comes in the queue. 

Morton says that SWA reviewed other solutions, but the VHT decision was made easy by the provider’s impressive customer list and personal touches, such as a self-recorded name-recognition feature. The implementation took one week and went live in April 2009. “In my 16 years here at SWA,” he says, “I’m hard-pressed to remember a project that was implemented so smoothly.” The learning curve went smoothly as well; the software required little change in job function. Customers are called back automatically and transferred to an available rep, so no manual dialing or data tracking is required in-house. 

SWA’s innovative implementation bore instant fruit and immediate customer response. In the feature’s first day, 40 percent of SWA’s callers opted for their calls to be returned. Positive customer feedback came through satisfaction forms submitted by contact center reps and via the airline’s Twitter feed and Facebook page. 

By the end of 2009, SWA had tallied some impressive numbers. By enabling customers to hang up the phone, SWA saved 24.8 million toll minutes, significantly lowering telecom costs. The contact center’s speed-to-answer time was slashed 47 percent—nearly in half—from 5.7 minutes to 3.0 minutes. What’s more, the share of eligible callers opting for a callback had risen to 45 percent. 

SWA predicts that 500,000 potentially abandoned calls were recovered due to the decrease in hold time, spelling a possible climb in ticket revenue as well as a chance to satisfy more customers. The airline now boasts that 98 percent of returned calls—reflecting an additional 2.7 million contacts—are answered within its internally measured service-level standard. Better management of call volume has led to a decrease in overtime costs for reps as well.

Morton says that SWA has been extremely satisfied with the company’s partnership with VHT. “Virtual Hold clearly stands above the rest of the pack in the virtual-queuing world,” he adds, noting the vendor has earned points for a commitment to ensure SWA sees a return on its investment. “They have been checking back like clockwork,” Morton says, “which is amazing.” 

SWA’s success with VHT has lead to discussions of also implementing the vendor’s Rendezvous and click-to-call technology, which would allow customers to schedule their return calls. For now, the airline is flying high on its efforts and passenger approval. As one happy flier twittered, “Southwest Air reservations has a great feature: instead of keeping you on hold, they will call you back. A revolution in customer service!” 

Southwest Airlines, by the Numbers

  • Rather than waiting on hold, 45 percent of callers are called back;
  • Telecom costs have dropped with the elimination of 24.8 million toll minutes;
  • Speed-to-answer time has been cut by 47 percent, dropping from an average of 5.7 minutes to 3.0 minutes;
  • Abandonment has been avoided on an estimated 500,000 calls;
  • Calls have a 98 percent success rate in being answered within the internal service-level standard;
  • The airline now serves an additional 2.7 million calls within service-level standard;
  • The number of overtime hours for contact center reps has dropped; and
  • Customer satisfaction is apparent on the airline’s Twitter and Facebook pages.

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