The fact that social media has cemented its influence within our society is evidenced in many ways, but none more so than in the realm of corporate public relations and customer service. Stories abound concerning angry consumers taking to Twitter or Facebook to vent their frustrations from a particularly poor consumer experience. Savvy companies have tuned in to that fact, and are now leveraging social media to soothe and codify those chagrined customers. Social media, for companies paying attention, has turned into an invaluable customer service tool for remedying product and service issues. Yet what we do not hear regularly are stories where companies leverage social media to take a good customer experience and make it even better.

I had just such an experience with Southwest Airlines a couple weeks ago.

I was returning home from Wisconsin, where I had just delivered the Keynote address at the Annual Kids' Chance of Wisconsin Seminar. My flight, Southwest #2810, was normal by all respects. As is my custom I struck up a conversation with a friendly member of the flight crew, who was stationed along the overwing emergency exits where I prefer to sit. We departed on time, and I was soon settled in to one of my usual routines, watching television on the iPad courtesy of the Southwest satellite system while wearing sound cancelling headphones.

About an hour into the flight, movement over my head caught my attention. I looked up to see a flight attendant talking to the row of passengers in front of me. At the same time I saw a roll of toilet paper being passed over the top of the middle seat. It was being unrolled as it went, and the woman next to me took it and passed it back to the row behind us. By this point the headphones came off, as I noticed the same strange phenomenon occurring on the other side of the airplane. As soon as I removed those headphones, it was evident there was a lot of laughter and commotion going on around me.

It was a toilet paper race, instigated by the crew, and by the time it caught my attention, was in full swing halfway through the aircraft. There was apparently only one rule in this race; the stream of toilet paper could not break. It had to be continuous until it reached the back of the aircraft. And since this was a 737-800 series aircraft, it was a longer plane than you might think.

The side opposite mine “won” the race.

The end of the race was just as funny. They laid a stream of toilet paper the entire length of the aircraft, and one of attendants said over the PA, “See how we get rid of it”. With that he opened the front lavatory door, and apparently placed the leading edge in the toilet and flushed. All the passengers leaned over to watch the stream rapidly pull toward the lavatory and disappear.

Pretty damn funny, actually.

I took some pictures during the “race”, and since I was connected to the internet via Southwest's wifi system, tweeted them with the message below.

I then followed up with this second tweet.

At the bottom of that second tweet is the point of this entire article. Southwest Airlines responded, saying,@workcompking We like to do things a little differently at Southwest. You’re still a winner to us, Robert—DM your RR for a fun unveil! ^NL”

Excuse me, for just a moment, while I get my geek on. How cool is it to be sitting in a chair, 39,000 feet in the sky, holding a small handheld device, and communicating with the company responsible for getting you there? Is this a great country or what?? But I digress….

I did send my Rapid Rewards number to them as they requested, and we exchanged a couple private messages while I was still in the air. They told me via Direct Message:

We’re sending you a party plane kit to keep the fun going after that flight, Robert. Be on the lookout for a package from SWA! Thanks as always for flying with us! -Nicole

Several days later, a FedEx package arrived at my house. It contained a box designed to resemble the back of a Southwest seat, complete with fold out tray.

When I “opened the tray”, I found a drink glass containing two free drink coupons, stir sticks, a “bag of pretzels” and a boxed “snack”. The “bag of pretzels” is actually a USB flash drive, and the “snack box” is a battery backup to charge portable devices. Also included were a charging cable, two “LUV” t-shirts and two Southwest wrist bands.

Again, how cool is that? They took a great customer experience and made it a terrific one, just by paying attention to social media.

Regular readers know I am a Southwest Brand fanatic, and they are virtually the only airline I fly domestically – unless I have to fly to Bozeman or some other unfortunate locale not serviced by them. The company has been very active in engaging its customer base for many years. A few years ago they ran an innovative Haiku contest, which frankly, I should have won. They asked their Rapid Rewards customers to submit a Haiku describing their experiences with Southwest. It was a Sunday morning when I got the email, and the Haiku came to me in under 30 seconds. It was both touching and beautiful, and I share it with you here:

 (To fully understand it, you must know that my wife has had a Southwest Companion Pass for several years. It allows her to fly free with me whenever I fly)

LUV Companion Pass,
Luggage also has no cost,
Both case bag fly free.

And yes, I had my (long suffering) wife's blessing before I submitted that. I don't understand why I didn't win.

But of course, once again I digress…..

As this article is carried in our newsletter Wednesday morning, I will be headed to Tampa to board yet another Southwest flight; this one bound for Boston. Well, Baltimore actually, where I will board another one bound for Boston. I doubt there will be any toilet paper races, but it will be nice to know that if something good (or bad) happens, that the company is paying attention.

Social media has outstanding potential for enhancing customer service. Still, much of the focus has been on correcting the negative. When we learn to use it to reinforce the positive, then by gosh, we'll really have something.

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