How Southwest’s Community Champions Helped It Survive The Pandemic

Southwest Airlines launched its Community Champions scheme around four years ago. At the time, it was a good move by the carrier, recognizing and rewarding its super-fans for their work on its forum answering questions. But, as the airline has found out, these people have turned out to be worth their weight in gold during the current crisis.

Southwest Airlines COmmunity Champions
Southwest’s Community Champions proved to be invaluable during the pandemic. Photo: Southwest Airlines

Listening is key

Coverage of airlines in mainstream media is invariably negative. The headlines only really begin to sing when it’s about job losses, refund delays, and inflight brawls. One way in which airlines can avoid this negative press is by having a close ear to the ground when it comes to what their customers are saying about them.

Stay informed: Sign up for our daily aviation news digest.

Speaking at the recent World Aviation Festival, Lisa Goode, Social Business Director at Southwest Airlines, noted how important keeping lines of communication to its customers has been to the carrier during the pandemic. She said,

“It’s been very important that we listened to what our customers were saying, whether it was in social or over the phone to our customer relations folks and those in our reservations centers… What are our customers asking for, what are they concerned about, what do they have questions about? That was huge, because that gives us the feedback to then help the leaders make those in-the-moment decisions that needed to be made.”

Southwest Airlines COmmunity Champions
Early on, Southwest realized that listening to its customers was going to be key. Photo: Southwest Airlines

While listening to customers has undoubtedly been a significant priority for many airlines, Southwest had one unique tool in its arsenal that has allowed it to keep its finger on the pulse. Goode explained,

“The one that I really think was paramount to giving us critical feedback was the Southwest Airlines community. We’ve got a little more than 130,000 members in that community, mostly people who are asking questions about Southwest who might be unfamiliar with us.

“But we also have this really powerful group of folks that started to show up, about three years ago now, they started to show up and be the voice for us… and it was customers, it was our customers! Our A-list, preferred, companion passholder customers that really love Southwest, and so we developed a ‘Community Champions’ program.”

Every year, Southwest’s community nominates ten people to be part of the program. These ten are tasked with answering questions, moderating the forum and generally being the voice of the airline within the online community. As a reward, these champions get a number of perks, including swag and invitations to visit the airline’s HQ, as well as a shiny, unique avatar to display on their community profile.

Proving invaluable during times of crisis

Of course, the Community Champions program appeared long before the COVID crisis. However, having these on-the-ground links to its fliers has really given Southwest the inside track on the sentiment of its customers during these unprecedented times. Goode commented,

“They became so important during the pandemic, because the community is where we’re communicating with customers. Customers were coming to the community, and they had questions. They needed to know, what happens if my flight gets canceled or what happens if the schedule changes or what happens if… and [the Community Champions] just worked so hard.

“We set up weekly phone calls with them with our executive leaders to be able to talk about what they were hearing, to give us their thoughts. Because they are such super fans, they could give us their thoughts on where we should be going and what policies we might want to look at now.”

Southwest Airlines community champions
The Community Champions are Southwest’s super fans. Photo: Southwest Airlines

Heart and humor

From Lisa Goode’s perspective, it’s not just having people within the community that has made its Champions such a valuable asset. Southwest’s own employees are capable of doing that. She said,

“What makes this so unique is that it’s peer-to-peer, so they are customers talking to customers.”

Southwest Airlines community champions
Goode believes that the peer-to-peer nature of the Champions makes them a unique asset to the airline. Photo: Southwest Airlines

Southwest isn’t trying to shirk its responsibilities to its customers. Of course, it still has a vast team of incredibly dedicated social care workers who strive to take care of its customers every step of the way. But in an unprecedented situation such as this, having more hands to the pump, so to speak, means Southwest’s workers can do a better job of handling issues when it is something that needs to be resolved in house.

“The community champions can handle the basic policies and direct customers, and then they also know when to have a customer reach out to us in social media or over the phone… It allows our social care folks to engage and still be that Southwest heart and humor online and in social media.”

Have you come into contact with Southwest’s Community Champions? What do you think of the program? Let us know in the comments.