Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Kevin Smith vs Southwest: Did anyone win?

If you are like me, you missed the latest Twitter soap opera over the weekend, this one between Kevin Smith and Southwest Airlines. I've gone back and read blog posts and tweets from both parties, and from what I can tell, Smith was on standby for a SW flight earlier than his scheduled one. SW let him board that plane, then asked him to leave, citing that he was causing discomfort to the passengers around him, or that as he claims, he was 'too fat to fly'.

Now, as usually is the case with a social media firestorm, what actually happened isn't nearly as significant as how the involved parties RESPOND to what actually happened.

First, there was this blog post from Southwest, entitled "Not So Silent Bob Speaks", which is a terrible title. One thing companies need to realize when they are in a situation like this is that many people are going to take swipes at you no matter WHAT you do or HOW you respond. So why give them any ammo by choosing a title that SOME could see as a swipe against Smith? Bad move, Southwest.

Now as for the post itself, it's apparently been edited since it was first published, but after an initial apology to Smith (which is what you want to see), the tone of the rest of the post seems to be explaining why Southwest was not at fault here. Additionally, the post should have closed again apologizing to Smith, and offering readers to leave their feedback (which they were going to do anyway). And Southwest should have stressed that they handled the situation poorly, and were listening to Smith, and their customers.

While Southwest was leaving this post, @ThatKevinSmith was on Twitter leaving a steady stream of f-bombs and other profanity-laced tweets aimed at Southwest. Now somewhat in Smith's defense, he was obviously upset and felt he had been told by Southwest that he was 'too fat to fly'. He was embarrassed, and had been the victim of a very bad customer service experience. So him being upset is understandable, but after 100 or so profanity-laced tweets, I think he crossed the line from being justifiably upset, to making himself look bad. I won't share the tweets, and honestly the one I included in this post was one of the few that didn't have the f-bomb in it.

Southwest then followed the next day with another post on the subject, which led to a post from Smith on his blog (NSFW). BTW after reading these posts I noticed something very significant: Southwest allowed comments on their posts, Smith did not. And yes, many of the (anonymous) comments on the Southwest blog were slamming the company, while many others defended their actions. But again, it rings a bit hollow to me that Smith wants to use social media to complain about the situation, but won't let us give our thoughts.

In the end, I think both Southwest and Smith handled this poorly. Southwest clearly didn't handle Smith's situation very well at all, and probably never should have let him on the plane, and then weren't completely honest about why he had to leave the plane. At least that's what it seems like to me. Then their apologies didn't seem completely sincere, and Smith went from being justifiably outraged to all but whining on Twitter. And constant f-bombs did nothing to help his cause.

But for companies, I think this is a reminder of how to properly handle a 'crisis' situation like this:

1 - Admit you were wrong, and MEAN IT. Even if you really don't THINK you were wrong, admit that you could have been, and probably were. Because many people will automatically believe you ARE wrong. So address those people in your response. Again, firestorms like this are pushed by the people that are the most vocal, and that doesn't necessarily mean they are right or even interested in being right. But it DOES mean that your response needs to go above and beyond in admitting error, and apologizing.

2 - Tell us how you will keep the same thing from happening to me. How will you FIX the problem? What did you learn from this, and what will be changed as a result?

3 - Invite feedback and let customers know that you WANT to hear from them. I never saw this in Southwest's replies. And you might as well ask for feedback because you WILL get it. Say you're wrong, tell us how the problem will be fixed, then invite us to give you feedback on what you are doing.

4 - Apologize, and remind us that you will do everything you can to ensure that this doesn't happen again. Thank your customers for caring enough to voice their concerns about this issue, and invite them to keep responding.

What do you guys think? Did Southwest handle this correctly? If not, what could they have changed? Was Smith justified in his tweets, or did he go too far?

BTW Sonny has a great post on this episode, check it out.


Akash Sharma said...

Great post Mack, I think @Kevin has tried to get some publicity by using the viral nature of social media and to some extent @Southwest has avoided the fire not due to their own efforts but due to there supporters.

Quite a while back I had read a post named, "When to fire a customer?" Kevin was that one customer but they could have handled him better as per your advice.

shopJulie said...

Spot On Mark!

Unknown said...

I was indifferent to Southwest prior to this incident, but after listening to Smith on his podcast http://www.podtrac.com/pts/redirect.mp3/s3.amazonaws.com/smodcast/SModcast-106.mp3 I can say that I will not be choosing them in future.

One can hardly fault Smith for leaving comments closed on that post. The man has lived in public and online for a long time and he knows the trolls and vultures are there to pounce. The world is not lacking for an outlet to discuss the matter. There's no reason he need wade through another tidalwave of anonymous insults and personal attacks.

More concerning with Southwest's initial response was the decision to release previously non-public information about the client (his past purchase of two seats) in an effort to bolster their own position. This led to numerous articles stating that Smith 'routinely buys two seats'... a point he contests but is now forever in the public record.

Mack Collier said...

Rob it sounds to me like both sides got some info wrong. I agree with you that it's a bit of bad judgment if nothing else to mention Smith's previously purchasing 2 seats. And honestly if he did do that, I could see him doing it simply because he didn't want anyone sitting next to him asking him a zillion dumb questions.

But then again, he claims that SW never called him when they said they tried to, they claimed they tried to call the number he gave them, and couldn't get through. Did he leave them a bogus number? He never addressed that that I could find.

Honestly, I don't think either party handled this very well and if EITHER of them had acted appropriately, it would have made the other party look VERY bad.

Chelle Parmele said...

I was going to go on about how Kevin is all about being anti appropriate and how this type of "rant" is all kinds of normal for him and how his response is actually exactly what I expected from him, based on being a fan of his from 1994.

But that's not really the question you asked.

So I'm going to say this. You asked- Did SW handle this properly?

Argh. I can't even answer that because? They created a rule that will, in pretty much all instances, end in bad customer service. End in the embarrassment of a paying passenger. How did they ever... ever in the wildest imaginations think this kind of result wouldn't happen?

In what world does the conversation that starts, "I'm sorry sir/miss, but based on my opinion on the amount of flesh you seem to sport under that bulky coat, you will have to buy another ticket before getting on our plane" end well?


Would they kick Jeremy Shockey off the plane for having shoulders the size of Montana? Why not?

One of the complaints SW had for Kevin was that the people on either side had to lean away from him. I would have to lean away Jeremy. And a man further from fat I could not find. Seriously. Do they take him off the plane for having wide shoulders?

SW crossed a customer service line to begin with. They, in my opinion, brought this upon themselves.

But that's just my opinion. :)

margotzooms said...

I think @Kevin is allowed to say whatever he wants. I have flown next to people in need of serious hygiene, I have sat next to Born Again Christians (who never, never stop talking) and folks listening to music so loud that you would think the pilot 25 rows and a door away could hear.

The problem is Southwest's problem. Not Kevin's.

I applaud his anger and energy to "give it all he's got"

Davina K. Brewer said...

Mack, I also read and commented on Sonny's blog; this situation is great real-time a PR and SM case study.

No one wins here because both parties share fault. All the He Said/They Said just shows there will always be at least two sides to the story.

Though now with SM, blogs and Twitter, there are many more sides than two.

Re: Kevin's reactions and the closed blog. Rob makes a good point about Kevin probably wanting to avoid the blog trolls and such but that's what mods are for. I will say that IIRC Kevin responded to many of the comments he received via Twitter, which was a lot of work in efforts to engage. FWIW.

patmcgraw said...

Regarding "Admit you were wrong, and MEAN IT. Even if you really don't THINK you were wrong, admit that you could have been, and probably were."

The customer is always right - if they say you are wrong, you are.

Unknown said...

Mack - I think SW could have handled aspects of this situation much better. The area that I think deserves a bit more attention is on the blog comments. The SW blog's comments are moderated according to the 'About' page.

"Even though Nuts About Southwest is moderated, we pledge to present opposing viewpoints as we have done since our blog first went “live” several years ago, and we will strive to keep posts interesting, diverse, and multi-sided..."

So they kept up with getting slammed on their blog and sending those comments on for public consumption. This, I think, is a solid example of being open for your audience. Did they have missteps? Absolutely, but then again they were in the conversation from the very beginning. Just my $.02

- @vedo

GeekMommy said...

Great post on this Mack.

Honestly? They both lost.

Southwest could've been more graceful and less defensive in their response.

Kevin could've acted a bit less like a rabid badger.

Impression-wise, people come away thinking "Kevin Smith is a foul-mouthed guy who can't control his anger and Southwest Airlines has horrible customer service."

Who wins in that?

For the record? During the rampage I twittered
http://is.gd/8lMlf "Hey @ThatKevinSmith? Reminder that @SouthwestAir is a person doing a tough job too - not a heartless company exec or the clueless captain"
"I don't think that what @ThatKevinSmith experienced is okay - but there's a real person (or 2) behind the @SouthwestAir Twitter account."

Kevin's response was to block me on Twitter.
Not exactly rational based on what I said.

Do I believe that Smith was thrown off of the airplane unjustly? Yep.
Do I believe (having listened to his hour long profanity-laced podcast) that he was "calm and rational and polite" to the gate agents? Not for a second.

Mack Collier said...

"Do I believe that Smith was thrown off of the airplane unjustly? Yep.
Do I believe (having listened to his hour long profanity-laced podcast) that he was "calm and rational and polite" to the gate agents? Not for a second."

Bingo on both points, and by blocking you over INCREDIBLY rational tweets, it shows that he was all about using social media to spin this episode.

Both Kevin and Southwest have their fans in this 'fight', and you probably aren't going to change any of their opinions. But how both parties have handled this speaks VOLUMES to the majority of us that are on the sidelines here.

IMO the way Kevin has acted makes him look worse than Southwest here. Anyone can be a rude loudmouth via Twitter.

Unknown said...

Agree with the last few comments, nice post and sage advice for companies who experience a like event!

Rob said...

Great post Mack. In examining the Kevin Smith/Southwest Airlines situation for my company, I focused on when it is appropriate for consumers to use social media tools to complain about poor service.


While I empathize with Kevin Smith and believe that Southwest employees may not have interpreted their own policy correctly, it seems disingenuous for Smith to complain about being labeled "too fat to fly" when it was his tweets that prompted the story to hit the mainstream media.

As satisfying as it may be to lash out against bad service online, you have to use caution. Like you said in your post, Smith's foul language probably caused him more trouble than this situation was worth.

Anonymous said...

I think part of the problem is that Southwest ISN'T sorry. So what is a company to do in that case? When a person violates a companies codes and rules, how is the company supposed to apologize like they mean it? If they did apologize, it would mean they would have to change their policies, and they can't always do that. In this case it is debatable whether or not Mr. Smith was "too fat to fly," but what about other cases that are clear cut?

SEOcopy said...

Hello Mark, excellent points you bring up. Having been part of the hospitality industry for many years I cringe every time someone say's "the customer is always right."

Sometimes they are not, and to not take a stand will garner disrespect for your service or product. Sometimes you have to fire the client or the customer. Sometimes, they do get out of hand, rude, mouthy and most of all disrupt your other clients or customers.

That's not to say SW or Kevin handled their problems correctly but, it takes a few things that I see both parties missing completely or not grasp totally. Here are a few
Social Proof
What do you think?

Mack Collier said...

SEOCopy, I think Southwest and Kevin had most/all of those things....with their fans. That was the interesting element to this debate. For the most part, the fans of both SW and Smith were going to defend each blndly, cause that's what fans tend to do.

But as always, the third side of this debate (the rest of us watching it unfold) were the ones that could form opinions about both parties. And I think most of us that aren't fans of either, think they both blew it, to some degree.

So in the end, both parties probably looked good to their fans, and badly to most everyone else?