If Zappos ran an airline …

A few weeks ago, after Andrew Der posted a story about a Zappos customer who experienced incredible service, a commenter wondered aloud, “What would happen if Zappos ran an airline?” Good question! So I asked Zappos Customer Service Director Rob Siefker — how, exactly, would you run an airline?

Elliott: How often do you fly, and what’s your preferred airline?

Siefker: I’m personally a big fan of Southwest Airlines, and I think they do a number of things right. First, they hire people who can help provide the Southwest experience. Their staff tend to be extremely friendly, and they have some flight attendants who are pretty hilarious during their introductions and safety routine.

It’s a good thing to get people to smile and laugh. In general, removing or easing customer anxiety is something that a few airlines do well, but others really struggle to figure out the best way to do so while still remaining true to their brand.

Elliott: What do airlines do right, in your opinion?

Siefker: I think the purchasing of tickets and knowing all of the expenses that will come with them can be challenging to manage as a consumer. Again, I tend to default to Southwest Airlines because it’s simple. I know the experience will be consistent and comfortable, and I know when I buy my ticket that I’m covered. I don’t have to worry about checked bag costs, carry-on costs, or booking a specific seat.

Elliott: How do you think airlines can improve?

Siefker: Choice is a powerful thing for us consumers, but it becomes frustrating when you have to manage an overwhelming number of options and variables that change with every single airline. It doesn’t bode well for setting up a smooth travel experience, and frustration can be compounded by unexpected changes or charges when you may have thought you’d resolved everything with the airline when first purchasing your ticket.

Elliott: Here’s a hypothetical question: Say you got a call from an executive recruiter working for a large airline based in Texas. The name of the airline is unimportant. The CEO wants to retire at the end of the year and they’re looking for someone new — an outsider who really gets customer service — to run the airline. They fly you to Dallas. You sit down with the recruiters and a few board members. What do you tell them?

Siefker: The chances of me ever being flown to Dallas for such an opportunity are probably nil, but I can assure you I wouldn’t take the job if there wasn’t a commitment to service.

That means there would have to be a long-term financial commitment to shifting the business in a different direction while positioning for long-term growth and sustainability. Quarterly financial obsessions would have to be replaced with customer obsession. It would take effort and a real focus on shifting the culture of the business. Anything less and you wouldn’t really stand a chance in truly reinventing an organization.

Elliott: While we’re on the topic of airlines, let’s say you get a call from Jeh Johnson, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. Things are not working out with the current head of a certain agency assigned to protect America’s transportation systems — again, names are not important — and the federal government wants to do this the Zappos way. What do you say?

Siefker: Long airport security lines are not fun. In fact, long lines are generally never fun, and in the case of flying you’re not even necessarily waiting to get through to experience something amazing.

The security screening process is likely fairly similar to fulfillment or contact center operations in a number of ways. In looking at all of the data, and having a specific wait-time goal, you should be able to properly plan ahead in order to reduce wait times.

Everything in an operation is easier said than done, so I wouldn’t ever make a claim that these things are easy. However, they can be planned for, and appropriate planning can smooth out operational challenges.

I’d focus a lot on the wait times, and doing whatever you can to make security more fun and engaging. I’ll give the example of some of the silly videos they play in the Las Vegas airport. They’re pretty cheesy and could be better done, but the general idea hits the mark. The videos are of either famous or interesting characters going through a mock security line. The point of the videos is to educate passengers and entertain them while doing so. It at least lightens the mood a little bit.

Elliott: Can passengers do anything to improve customer service? Or maybe I should ask: How do you get a company to pay attention to what you’re saying?

Siefker: Passengers don’t always feel as if they have the power to change things because they don’t think anyone is listening. I encourage people to provide more feedback, and be specific.

Also, if you have a choice between airlines then I recommend you select wisely. If possible, vote with your dollars, especially if you can afford to spend a few more bucks to fly on the better airline.

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