How to Take a Southwest Approach to Customer Service

Author: David McMillin       

When Renee McKenney joined VisitDallas as senior vice president and chief experience officer in October 2016, her first thought wasn’t on the staff members in her own office. “I felt like we needed to focus on customer service in Dallas, and that meant working with the city’s most important ambassadors,” McKenney told PCMA. “The front-desk clerks, the museum staff, the cab drivers, the convention-center workers — those are the people who really represent a city.”

The level of customer service that McKenney wanted to see throughout Dallas was something she had experienced in her early career, when she worked at Southwest Airlines. It’s no secret that Southwest stands out from the competition — in fact, a recent study of 10,000 consumers named Southwest the top airline for customer experience. The fact that Southwest Airlines recently built its Training and Operational Support (TOPS) Building at Dallas Love Field seemed to connect the dots. That’s where Southwest joined forces with VisitDallas on March 9 to offer a Customer Service Master Class: a one-day immersive experience for hospitality workers to learn the “Dallas difference” in customer service.

The Admissions Process

The program was free, but the audience was limited to 350. To participate, prospective attendees completed applications that included information on their passions, their thoughts on customer service, their learning objectives for the program, and more. As a new initiative, McKenney said she didn’t know if it would resonate with the city’s travel and tourism community, but the numbers show that the class struck a chord: More than 700 hospitality employees submitted applications.

In addition to those who attended, the faces on stage demonstrated their commitment to customer service. Nearly all the speakers donated their time. “It touched on the heart of the community,” McKenney said. “We don’t have beaches. We don’t have mountains. We do have great people.” 

Three Key Ingredients: Education, Celebration, Graduation 

The program included four education sessions on how to create fans for life, how to listen to customers, and how to foster a workplace culture committed to superior customer service. In addition to hearing from some of the leaders at Southwest Airlines, members of Dallas’ business community contributed to the conversation. The experience featured plenty of celebratory elements, too. JJ Berea, a member of the Dallas Mavericks, greeted attendees as they arrived. Southwest delivered a surprise-and-delight moment with $100 gift cards for all 350 attendees. At the end of the day, everyone received a graduation certificate framed by Dallas-based arts and crafts company Michaels.

“I did not expect to learn as much as I did,” Garland White, an employee at the Magnolia Hotel Downtown Dallas, said after the program. “All of the presenters and panelists provided a lot of insight into world-class hospitality and customer service. I took a ton of notes and will be implementing some ideas with my team and sharing the knowledge that l gained from the class.”

The insights on the stage proved to be valuable, but McKenney was most excited to see different sectors of the hospitality industry come together during networking breaks and a closing happy hour. “The attendees loved the opportunity to network with people they have never networked with before,” she said. “Our performing arts people had never really hung out with our hotel people. Those relationships were bridged. It provided an organic environment to brainstorm on how to make the city better.”

Looking Ahead

After a successful launch, McKenney said that the two companies want to continue the class, and future plans will be based on survey feedback from the first-year attendees. “We’re trying to figure out how we build out a curriculum that ties to the course,” she said. “Perhaps it will be a continuous certification instead of just an annual event.”

Regardless of how the experience and the education may evolve, McKenney highlighted that the focus will always remain the same. “It’s really about getting back to basics,” McKenney said. “We get so caught up in data and analytics in today’s information-driven world. We need a reminder that we’re in the hospitality business for one reason. It’s to make people feel good.”

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