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What senior living can learn from Southwest’s customer service

October 6, 2017
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I fly nearly every week on Southwest Airlines. I’m a Companion Level frequent flyer in its rapid rewards program, which means whenever I travel I can bring someone with me for free and receive a variety of other benefits that improve my quality of life when I travel.

  Southwest uses five strategies to earn customer satisfaction and retain customer loyalty:

  1. Southwest makes “real” mistakes a rare occurrence.
  2. The company handles mistake and challenges beyond its control with the same goal of fixing them quickly and making the traveler happy.
  3. Southwest’s front-line employees have the freedom and the tools to fix challenges for customers.
  4. Customers receive something unexpected when faced with travel issues.
  5. Southwest does a great job thanking customers for their loyalty.


Here’s how senior living providers can use the same strategies to improve engagement and satisfaction among customers, especially when something goes wrong.

Make mistakes a rare occurrence

An organization that strives for operational and care/service delivery excellence still makes an occasional mistake. Southwest has my firm loyalty because of their operational excellence (like on-time departures and arrivals) and value (free luggage, no change fees and low fares). I forgive the “rare” mistake as a result, and your residents, caregivers and referral sources will most likely do the same.

Plenty of studies show the correlation between objective measurements of quality such as overall Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services 5-star ratings and excellent resident satisfaction survey results and census strength.

Fix it quickly

Customer service challenges can stem from “our fault” mistakes or factors beyond our control. The key is to handle both the same way, without making excuses. A weather delay is not something an airline can control, while a mechanical or maintenance delay is. Southwest’s employees handle both challenges in the same way, apologizing for the inconvenience and creating the best possible outcome for the customer.

Senior living can use the same approach:

  • Apologize whether it’s a “real” mistake or something out of your control
  • Understand the customer’s perception of the problem, its impact on them and the situation
  • Offer a solution that works best for the customer

Empower the front-line employees

In 90 percent of situations where Southwest had to help me with a customer service problem, the front-line employees (ticket counter reps, gate agents and flight attendants) were empowered to provide the solution immediately without help from their managers. Senior loving administrators also should create a culture where front-line team members can fix customer service complaints without going to a manager, department head or to you. Every time a customer has to wait for someone else to solve the problem, frustration will increase.

Administrators also should encourage or initiate conversations and training in advance to help team members learn how to handle problems and complaints themselves, and what to do in rare instances where a problem needs to be elevated to another team member. Make sure your staff feels comfortable bringing an especially problematic issue to you, but coach them in ways they can solve most problems without waiting for your permission or approval.


Luke Fannon


Luke Fannon is founder and CEO of Premier Coaching & Training, Unionville, Pa., which...