August 4, 2012 2:41 pm

Rebecca Murtagh

Southwest Airlines Website #Fails Amidst Facebook Flash Sale – A Teaching MomentSouthwest Rewards 3 million Likes with a Facebook Flash Sale

Please see update below.

Note: I delayed this post pending a request to Southwest Media to provide their side of the story. I submitted a request to their media site explaining I was writing a blog post and invited them to offer insight to provide a “teaching moment” so others can avoid similar issues when their brand is not prepared for success. I have not yet received a response. The invitation remains open for Southwest to add any kernels of wisdom that may help others avoid similar scenarios, which I will happily add to this post.

The Facebook “Flash Sale” Offer

Southwest was the first airline to attract 1 million likes on Facebook. The airline now has over 3 million ‘Likes” on Facebook. To reward the benchmark of 3 million loyal followers, on Friday, August 3r, 2012, Southwest Airlines launched a one-day 50% FLASH off air fare promotion (LUV2LIKE).

Unfortunately, Southwest was not prepared for success of this promotion.

What Happens When You Are Not Prepared for Success

This is a teaching moment every business with a website can learn from. I have seen this over and again with businesses leveraging the internet to build their business. If you are going to use your website to receive visitors or conduct transactions directly related to an invitation you make, you darn well better be ready to receive those you invite.

No PR Crisis Management Plan?

I held this post overnight because I myself visited the website a couple of hours after beginning this post and was able to successfully complete a booking. Southwest may not be the most glamorous mode of travel, but it is one of the few carriers in my market that can get me to key domestic destinations on a direct flight. So, because I do frequently fly them, and have to say their crew is usually far more professional and personable than other airlines in my market, so I “liked” them a long time ago. That being said,  I decided to visit Facebook and give the promo a try. I saw fans posting they couldn’t get the website to load. I tried it and also got an error. I figured they were scrambling to increase capacity to accommodate response. A little egg on their face for not being ready for the mass response is forgivable, even a little enviable, but one would expect they would have been on top of this and addressed any issues quickly.

Success Creates Challenges

When I was able to successfully access itineraries for the promotion, I figured Southwest must have had it all worked out. I was wrong. The last phase of the transaction froze. With all my years of experience in web, I knew not to refresh the browser or click the button again so I just let it go. I checked back 20 minutes or so later and the browser was no longer hung up, but nothing was on the page to indicate whether the transaction went through. As attractive as a cheap flight was, I wasn’t willing to try again and take the chance of duplicate orders. I never received a notification from the session, or the instant email you typically get when a ticket purchase goes through. It was a $149 RT ticket. If it went through, great. If it didn’t, it wasn’t the end of the world. So, I went on with my evening.

Later in the evening I logged on to my bank account and saw that the $149 purchase for Southwest was pending 16 times. This was alarming to say the least. I went to the blog section of the Southwest Airlines website, thinking they would would have at least acknowledged the problem. The most recent post was the press release announcing the Flash sale. No mention of the website failure, or issues being experienced by customers accepting their invitation to participate in the promotion. I also visited their Facebook page and Twitter profile. I noticed that other fans were having difficulty getting through to customer service. There was no statement by Southwest representatives to acknowledge the issues that were being shared in a steady stream of complaints, frustrations with the website and inability to get through on Southwest Airlines customer service phone lines. A missed opportunity.

Southwest Airlines is Social, Well Kind of

Upon closer scrutiny, the Southwest Airlines Facebook page states that they do not address customer service issues on Facebook. They do offer this:

Contact info from Southwest Airlines Facebook page

Interesting use of a PO Box. Not sure many website customers would mail an “immediate concern”. At least they offer a contact form.

Nothing on Company BlogSouthwest Airlines company blog

The Southwest Airlines Company Blog also failed to mention the website issues. Surely website performance issues impacted those who just happened to be booking during the time that the Flash Sale was running. No post, no maintenance or service announcement, nothing still as of the morning after the sale. Because they do not address the issues, the “Social stream” does not display any evidence of the website issues, or billing errors created by the ticketing mechanisms of the website.

Southwest Airlines Crisis Management Plan Apparently Does Not Include Ticketing

Southwest clearly did not have a plan in place to react and respond to the website’s inability to accurately process transactions conducted online at high volume. What did they expect when they invite 3 million people to a Flash Sale?

They would have been well served to post an acknowledgement and apology. Simply saying “due to high demand we apologize that our website is struggling to keep up with the response from our fabulous fans”, or “due to high demand, we know that many of you are experiencing difficulty in taking advantage of our Flash sale, so we’ve extended it from midnight to noon tomorrow to show our appreciation for your patience”.

Nothing Happening Here

What has the Southwest Airlines website said about this event? Nothing. Their press room shows nothing beyond the announcement of the Flash Sale. They are probably hoping to not have to expose non-Facebook fans to the negativity swirling around the promotion. That’s certainly one way to go.

Southwest Press Room does not acknowledge website fail.

Not a Single Tweet on Twitter

Only after the sale ended did Southwest actually acknowledge the website performance issues that had Facebook users flooding their wall.

Only after sale ends does Southwest Tweet about Website Performance issues

Containing Negativity to Facebook Fans – All 3 Million of Them

You have to be logged into Facebook to view the acknowledgment of website performance issues. The post was made in the wee hours on their Facebook page, after the sale had ended, saying “Thank you for your excitement in taking advantage of the limited-time offer we shared today in celebration of reaching three million Fans on Facebook. Due to the overwhelming response, we experienced some site performance issues at various times throughout the day. We apologize to our Customers for any inconvenience and are proactively cancelling any duplicate itineraries that may have occurred.

Could it be that they never put in place a crisis management plan, or escalation protocols for issues? Was Southwest managing the Facebook promotion internally, or was it outsourced? All that matters to the customers is that there were no proactive statements or responses forthcoming from the brand.

Website Fails to Meet Demand

I expected Southwest Airlines to have better QA in place. The website should never have the capability to produce many reservations from one transactions from a technical perspective. From a common sense perspective (what customers care about) this promotion created more negative feedback than good will. After all they collect your name, birth date and other info for TSA, they had to be able to figure out I personally couldn’t occupy more than one seat. I was wrong, this morning, I received 6 separate emails, each with a different confirmation number. It was not yet 8am on a Saturday morning, so I decided to call Southwest ticketing to correct the problem. The recording told me my wait would be 1 hour 58 minutes to 2 hours and 58 minutes. YIKES!

Southwest Airlines has some xplainin’ to Do

Customer Reports that Multiple Charges for Ticketing Errors Generated by Southwest Airlines Website will take 4-6 weeks to correct.

Visiting the Facebook page this morning, it is clear that Southwest needs to revisit their policies for the digital space. Loyal customers that answered the call to purchase tickets are not happy.  Once fan lucky enough get through to Southwest Customer Service was apparently billed multiple times and was told it could take up to 4-6 weeks to be credited back what Southwest mistakenly overcharged them. This is insane.Hopefully they can expedite this and get the word out.

If you are not ready for the masses, do not invite 3 million people to your store to make a purchase, some of them may just take you up on it. Just sayin’.

Southwest Airlines tells customer it will take 4-6 weeks to correct billing errors.

I contacted Southwest media relations to help them share their side of the story yesterday, but no response was received as of this morning. The invitation is open to add a comment, which I will happily post.

Backlash From Loyal Customers They Were Seeking to Reward

The very same Facebook Fans that Southwest was seeking to reward were tested by Southwest Airlines website’s epic failure to be prepared to be successful. Facebook fans are not holding back with their frustration. Manybilled his card 31 times for one transaction, another claimed the transaction was pending 9 times on her card, but no confirmation email was received. In a struggling economy, rising travel costs and the likelihood that word would spread like wildfire via social media, Southwest should have been prepared for a huge response. So what happened?


Southwest Airlines Promo #Fails Most Loyal Flyers

This is probably not what Southwest had in mind when then posted a Flash sale on a Friday Summer afternoon. They can only hope that they have built up enough good will with the 3 million people they invited to the Flash sale will be forgiving.

I hope they get it cleared up and think up some way to reward customers for all the frustration and  errors crated by their reward.

4 Key Takeaways From Southwest Flash Sale #Fail

We all learn from mistakes. And, congratulations to Southwest Airlines for generating such great response to their “Flash Sale” promotion. The website performance issues were serious. Instead of being transparent and forthcoming Southwest has opted to acknowledge the impact on customers and their bank accounts as little as possible. As a result, they have upset many of the customers they were seeking to “reward”.

What can we learn from this story?

4 Best Practices to apply when hoping the best and preparing for the worst:

  1. Be prepared for Success , Test, test, test!
  2. Be prepared for Failure, Have a crisis management plan in place.
  3. Be forthcoming with those you impact. COMMUNICATE!
  4. Do not repeat history, Learn and Never let it happen again.

Anything you would add?


Better Late Than Never?

I would like to add that since this post I received a “Personal Note” email from Southwest Airlines Senior Vice President Customers explaining what had happened, how to gain assistance with any outstanding billing issues and that I could expect a subsequent email with a LUV voucher. I have since received the LUV voucher (for almost the exact amount of the ticket purchased during the promotion) and can report that despite the angst caused to countless customers, Southwest does appear to value their customers and making a sincere effort to earn the continued loyalty from customers.

Relationships are the lifeblood of every business. Southwest Airlines has demonstrated that they intend to continue the values their brand was built on. I do hope they will be better prepared for the next promotion.

A Teaching Moment

Thank you Southwest for providing a good case study of how things can go wrong, even to good brands. And, that if you have done the work ahead of time to build loyal customers with value, you can mend the damage and continue serving the loyal customers you have earned over the years.

About the Author

Rebecca Murtagh: Human First Futurist, CEO & Founder of Human AI Institute, winner of the Inc. Magazine Power Partner Award.

Rebecca leverages decades of experience working with Fortune 500, Silicon Valley, Wall Street, Mains Street, global brands and startup entrepreneurs to help executives, their teams, and entrepreneurs leverage their genius through Human AI to improve productivity, collaboration, creativity and job satisfaction for optimum performance and long-term success.

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