Losing Customer Focus

Southwest Airlines has long been known for two things: low prices and attention to customer service. Since they instituted the “reserved place in line” so I wouldn’t have to stand for a long period of time, I have come to check their website first, and only rarely look for alternative flights. Sadly, they’ve taken their eye off the ball. I suspect that the focus on customer service has been replaced by a focus on growth (given their in-progress takeover of Airtran).

Some months back, I noticed that their website had become bandwidth greedy with javascript doodads. This made it painfully slow on many hotel internet connections. They seem to have backed off from that a bit, but have now broken it in a way that prevents me from buying the ticket I want. (In addition, when I call the “Southwest Airlines Customer Representative for assistance” as prompted on the website, I find they no longer have enough to handle the call volume. I wonder if they’ve reduced the support, or if the call volume has increased, or both.)  There’s a lesson here about considering all of the important user stories when implementing new functionality, so it bears describing.

I went to the Southwest web site to purchase my ticket to Salt Lake City for the Agile2011 Conference. I took a look at the available flights on the appropriate travel dates. Then I remembered that I have an unused travel award, so I went to check if those dates were available, even at this late date. Hooray, they were! Boo hiss, the flights I want were not. Oh, well, it serves me right for putting this off so long.

So, I went back to buy the tickets with money. But when I search for the flights, instead of showing me the flights for purchase, it shows me the dates available for using my travel awards. I sign out of my account and try again. Now it gives me an error: “Oops! We are currently unable to complete your request due to an undefined error.” I try deleting cookies. I try closing the browser and re-opening it. No dice. Still, if I’m logged into the account it gives me the travel award availability dates, and if I’m logged out it gives me an “undefined error.”

I also notice that even after deleting cookies and restarting the browser, when I go to search for a flight it remembers my airport and date selections. This means that they’re keeping state on the server side, probably associated with my IP address (since I’ve logged out and deleted client side session data), and there’s no way I can find to reset this state.

In their attempt to be helpful, they’ve neglected to consider many common user scenarios. The Southwest website has long maintained enough state that you couldn’t do multiple searches in parallel to compare them and then select the one you wanted. But you could, in my experience, restart the search once you figured out which you wanted. Now there’s no mechanism I can find (and I’ve been struggling with this for over an hour) to take a purchase path that involves changing your mind and backtracking.

Am I the only indecisive customer? Or has Southwest forgotten the variability in the ways that humans approach things, and coded their website for a robotic “customer unit” that follows the one expected scenario?

More importantly, what do you and your organization do?

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