WestJet’s Recipe For Success: Knowing Thy Customer

One can’t diminish the value of customer relations in business, nor dismiss the success and understanding some companies have achieved by absolutely knowing their customers and their markets. Some of these businesses benefit by being able to more tactically spend marketing dollars, and more quickly anticipate and overcome challenges. They also benefit by creating impenetrable brand loyalty, where their consumers become their advocates, and trendy buzz words like word of mouth and viral marketing start becoming real and effective. As we all know, as soon as consumers become marketers for a company, growth has the opportunity to become exponential.

WestJet Airlines is a good example of a business that has succeeded in consumer relations. In a recent effort to change a flight, I was put on hold for approximately 48 minutes; no doubt due to the fiasco that has become their new back-end booking system, Sabre. The lengthy wait times that frequently dominate WestJet’s customer service department these days are a polar opposite of the quality driven airline enterprise that people have grown to love and trust in every year prior.

My 48-minute wait was not only uncomfortable in its essence, but it was augmented by the fact that I absolutely needed to make the flight change right away (and that while on hold, only three songs were played, on perpetual repeat). No doubt everyone waiting on the phone before me and those afterwards were in the same boat and feeling the same stress. I considered, while holding, that we as consumers had perhaps finally reached a lexicon with WestJet, where the company had grown to such a size or significance that the days of sheer quality and small-business-minded operations were coming to an end. Because of the importance of this new software, which apparently allows them to integrate into other airlines’ booking systems (think near-future partnerships and co-operative connections for global travel), I feared we were witnessing a shift away from a consumer focus in place of corporate interests: growth and efficiency.

But I was surprised after finally getting through. The Super Sales Agent was calm, proactive and sympathetic. She related to my needs, explained why I was on hold for so long, and why she’d need me to wait ten minutes longer to complete my relatively simple request. She offered to call me back so I didn’t need to wait on hold again. She called back about 20 minutes later, really, but said she’d completed my request and was not going to charge me for the difference in price ($10) nor the usually non-negotiable flight change fee of $50. What a nice treat.

Were I dealing with other businesses, 48 minutes on hold would be perhaps nothing out of the ordinary, and is a charge we as consumers accept simply because we’ve committed to doing business with them. Similarly, we don’t often get a break on fees because we’re stuck in the relationship. What other choice do we have? But in the case of WestJet, they’ve created a business around knowing and exceeding the requirements and expectations of their customers, and take extra steps to ensure satisfaction. Somehow they knew that by comping me on a change fee, they would negate nearly all ill feelings I had towards my wait time. They knew they’d see that money back another time, on another flight.

While this is merely one example, the focus on the customer is endemic within WestJet. It’s part of their philosophy. WestJet must be applauded for intently ‘knowing’ their customers so well – understanding their customers’ needs, knowing when they’re not being met, and acting quickly to make amends. Knowing your customer, investing in service and deciding to make good are not simple decisions or tasks. It takes humility to proactively forego flight change penalties, because those are easy revenue for airlines, and while welcomed, this treatment is not expected amongst consumers. Speaking from experience, determining who your audience is in the first place, let alone their preferences, tendencies and levels of satisfaction, is extremely challenging. Otherwise I suspect you’d see every business operating in this rhythm, because it breeds loyalty, return customers and word of mouth.

Deciding to be consumer-focused is truly a paradigm within a business plan. It is an enormous investment and a decision that is made in lieu or instead of shotgun or carpet bomb marketing. Many businesses see wholesome consumer relations as being extraneous spending and investment, and thus research and commitment to the extent that WestJet has employed would seem almost wasteful. But going down that road pays significant dividends in the long run, and only now is it so plainly obvious that they’ve succeeded in ways their competitors never will.

It seems kind of silly in retrospect, but from a operations and revenue perspective, investing in figuring out your audience is perhaps the best money one can spend in marketing and PR. Think about it. If you can precisely know who your audience is, and furthermore what they want, what they need, what their tolerance level is for dissatisfaction, and how to appease them, the remainder of your communications, marketing, advertising and PR can be so much more focused and made so much more efficient. And the impact of lost revenue when an crisis is faced is minimized. Remember, every challenge presents an opportunity, and every cliff affords a view.

About the author cdub

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  1. Yes, yes, and yes.

    WestJet is pretty unique as it also features employees that partly own the airline. This has huge empowering qualities for employees as well as the form factor of ownership that interacts directly with the customer. In this day and age, that is a *rare* thing for a company of that size and scope. It makes for a very healthy corporate culture, at least from the outside.

    I haven’t been inside, so yeah. Just case studies here, and also having been a grateful customer many times.

    For all the reasons you mentioned.

    But Saber, on the other hand. . I was doing case studies about getting rid of Sabre in the mid nineties – back then they were talking about getting rid of it because it was too old, slow and inflexible. Makes you wonder if we build things that are too complex to be replaced, even if we all needed to do it. What a legacy.


  2. I’ve been a fan and advocate of Westjet for many years, but my experiences this week have convinced me to never book with this airline again, and to discourage my friends from doing so; and also to encourage my enemies to seek them out.
    I need to change a booking because of a time conflict, but cannot reach Westjet to do so. The change cannot be made online, because they have changed to a new “improved” booking system, and the change seems to have made any previous information inaccessible. The only way to effect a change is to call them, but they have not answered the phone for two days now. The only solution I can see is to book an alternate flight with a reputable carrier and to get the bank that services my Visa account to inform Westjet that I will not be flying with them, and do not wish to pay for the flight. Presumably, Visa has a method of contacting Westjet, even when they are in “fly-by-night” mode, otherwise how could they send them their monthly cheque?


    1. Wow, I totally sympathize with your difficulty. The two times I’ve had to change a flight with them during their “difficult” period, I’ve waited on hold (for upwards of an hour) or taken advantage of their call back service (which called me back at 11:45pm the night before an 8am flight!). So in my cases they’ve been able to at least at some point work with me. In your case, and I had a colleague yesterday dealing with the same issue, you can’t get through to them at all. All I can recommend is that you stay on hold (provided they let you) for as long as it takes.

      Once through I’m sure they’ll accommodate you as best as they can. I’ve been receiving spontaneous credit vouchers for between $25 and $100 for flights I barely remember taking. Hey, at least they’re trying, which is more than you can say for our other national airline most of the time.


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