Silent Bob finds his voice

I heard the story this morning on NPR (where I get a lot of ideas for this blog).  And, by now you all have heard the story too.  Kevin Smith, one of my all-time favorite directors, took Southwest Airlines to task on Twitter for its big person policy.  I love Kevin for his irreverent story telling in Clerks, Dogma, Chasing Amy and many more but the cynical side of me couldn’t help wondering if this self-proclaimed geek from Jersey is more marketing savvy than he leads on.   For he just happens to have a new movie coming out soon, “Cop Out” with Bruce Willis.  Just check out the live Google News and Twitter stream raging this morning. 

But, that’s not my angle here.  On the surface, this seems like just another example of a company tripping over its own policy to the detriment of customer service and its public persona; and from Southwest, of all companies, a rock star in the customer service hall of fame.  But, the issue runs deeper than that.  The real issue rises from giant companies trying to do what’s best for its customers, all of its customers; balancing the needs of the many with the needs of the individual.

Southwest, and other airlines, didn’t just come up with this butt-too-big-to-fit-in-one-seat policy to stick it to fat people.  Think about a time when you may have been on a plane, sitting next to a larger passenger, fighting for seat space, elbowing each other for arm rest control.  The challenge with any company trying to service a very large, diverse customer base? To accommodate everyone individually.  This is a higher level strategic customer service issue than appears on the surface also.  Can you really service everyone equally?  Or is that always going to end in disaster?  An average full passenger plane carries a couple hundred people of varying sizes and reasons for flying.

In my opinion, the root cause of this issue in the first place?  And my suggestion to all airlines.  If you can’t make money in this business without continually having to cram more and more seats into the same plane, then go do something else.  At the end of the day, airlines brought this upon themselves.  Big people flew 30 years ago.  But, they, and the people around them, had a lot more room to spread their wings…and butts. 

But, since I don’t anticipate a reversal in that trend anytime soon, here’s what’s needed, as Kevin so eloquently stated (subtlety is not one of his strong points).  He wants Southwest to at “least re-train your staff to be a lot more human & a lot less corporate when they pull a poor girl off the plane & shame her.” 
I think Kevin may have a career in customer service, once he stops chasing this silly movie making pipe dream and gets a real job.  Unless, he decides to go over to the dark side of marketing.


  1. Check out Kevin's smodcast. He explains it in much more detail than any blog or news report that I have seen so far. He claims he passed their Arm Rest Test. He also thinks it may have been one guy who singled him out and others just had to go along with it.

    He did take a picture of himself on the plane but he should have taken one of the arm rests.

  2. thanks for stopping by. here's the link:

  3. Good points Barry. One of the aspects of services that make them difficult to manage is the fact that a service provider can do everything right and still have another customer negatively impact someone’s experience.

    The obvious example is one of the drunken buffoon shouting obscenities while sitting behind a man and his young daughter at a sporting event.

    Of course everyone realizes this is negatively disruptive to the experience of the man and his daughter, and if the father doesn’t say something to stop the behavior, odds are good that another patron will. At its most extreme, the drunken fan is escorted off premises for his behavior.

    Kevin Smith’s Southwest experience is not as different from that as you may think. Sure he fits on the plane and isn’t a safety risk, but that isn’t the point. The space he’s occupying will undoubtedly negatively impact another customer having their own Southwest experience. Of course, in these cases, the guest in the adjacent seat is MUCH more likely to suffer through in silence, as it isn’t seen as socially acceptable to object to another patron’s weight. Similarly, no other patron will object on their behalf, and in most cases, the crew won’t force the issue.

    Fixes to this are varied, but start at the customer acquisition stage. Marketing has a responsibility to help the service operation identify and attract customers that are compatible with other customers. From there, solid process in terms of identifying incompatible customers and resolving for the incompatibility issues are critical.

    Southwest’s problem in this case wasn’t in not having an oversize customer policy – they’ve had one for almost 30 years. It was that 1) the policy is not well known or communicated, so it is difficult to set appropriate expectations (I’ll grant that increasing customer awareness of an oversized customer policy is delicate marketing at best) 2) anyone that travels frequently knows that it is not a consistently applied policy and 3) they haven’t done themselves any favors operationally by continuously decreasing seat size & separation as they (and every airline) pack more seats onto the plane.

    Customer incompatibility issues exist in every service business, and unless the entire business – particularly marketing, pricing, sales and operations – are pulling together to attract compatible customers, issues such as this work to make customers dissatisfied with the experience while actually making the service operation less efficient.

  4. In Des Moines IA a similar battle is raging. A local eating establishment failed on all levels to address a customer compliant. What followed was a much forwarded email that sparked a social media storm, ending in the lead story on the nightly news and an entire professional group boycotting this business.
    If this establishment had trained its employees to respond to compliants more effectively, this might have never spiraled out of control.

  5. Chris,
    Thanks for adding your insight. I actually was not aware of the length of time SWA had their 'customer of size' policy in place. I always look for the root causes of such issues. This view has been strengthened recently since I read "The best service is not service". A major tenant of this book is that customer service doesn't cause people to contact the company, its some up stream decision that created the need for that customer to reach out.

    This applies here in that, while I too empathize with the challenge of matching service delivery to such a broad diverse customer base, in the end I have to think that if airlines made better decisions about the size and number of seats on the plane, this issue would maybe be moot. Maybe?

  6. Hannah,
    Thanks for stopping by and commenting. And you hit on the second part in the failure here, in your example, and in many other instances. So, the company screws up. We're all human. But the way SWA handled their response to Kevin Smiths on line rantings was quite surprising. Their blog post was one part obligatory 'apology' and many more parts defense of its policies. So, you're employee enforced the policy blindly. Bad training. Lack of empowerment. Admit it. Tell your customers you'll do better. Train better, if thats the issue. Change the policy, if needed. But "sorry, but…" is not the answerm

  7. Read Smiths last blog post.SWA lied to and about him on a public forum and in person.That is why this hasn't blown over. They just now changed the wording in their blog with out changing the date or admiting the change. Their blatant lies and the refusal of lazy amoral journalists to do the most basic fact checking is why so many people are still so engaged.

  8. Oh and one more thing … This movie got Superbowl ads and stars Bruce Willis do you honestly think Smith. Thought gee maybe if I get major news outles to belittle me for my. Weight (an issue he has long admited being tough for him)it will be good for ticket sales. Shame on you for taking a painfull undeserved episode in this mans life and insinuating in any manner that he manipulated it for what ?greed? ?fame?

  9. thanks Penny for setting me straight on my initial reaction. I'm a cynic. guilty as charged. although….when you think about it, yes, the movie had Superbowl ads and a hefty media campaign. But, what has had more legs? Those ads or this story? Legs = memorable. But, thats beside the point. I raised it and dismissed it as a product of my own cynicism. Beyond that, I agree with you. SWA handled this very poorly. The initial 'apology' was curt, followed by a stern defense of their policy. Most definitely, the wrong approach.

    How about this for a better initial response? "Yes, Mr Smith. You are correct. We can always to better in training our people, especially those that interact with our most valuable asset – customers like you. It is a constant challenge for a company our size, with such a large and diverse customer base, to serve all of our customers individually in the manner which we expect to be treated ourselves. We constantly strive to balance the needs of each customer individually with the individual needs of all our other customers we serve. Sometimes those two goals collide, as was the case in the unfortunate situation we forced you to endure. Please accept our sincere apology and appreciation for your candid feedback; reminding us that we can never afford to sit back on our past customer service achievements. We need to constantly strive to find better ways to service our customers. Thank you again"

  10. The goals didn't colide he fit the seat the women seated next to him both said they weren't bothered. How about an honest apology. You were lied to,you did fit the seat, the pilot didn't see you. We made a mistake and we are genuinely sorry. What you wrote is better than what SWA wrote but you are still placing blame on Smith..this isn't fatgate… This is LIARGATE. It has legs because SWA has compounded its initial lies to Mr Smith with public lies to and about him, and is still doing it..And no you did not dismiss your unkind jab about publicity. To do that you need to give the same weight to the dismisal as you did the allegation. Put a line in explaining why no overweight person would heep humiliation on themselves and since Smith had been recognized before being jerked off the plane the story was aleady going to be out there.

  11. Thanks for returning Penny! I think we're in violent agreement here. Better even still, would have been for the flight attendants to use common sense in the first place…which is all Kevin was asking for, right?

    For the record, I am honestly conflicted about such 'customer of size' policies. In some cases I've witnessed personally, it impacts multiple passengers. So, there is a challenge there. How do you address the needs of all customers when one customer impacts many? I don't know if there is a simple answer.

    I do know, however, as I stated in the post, that the airlines brought this upon themselves. Unlike the universal ban on smoking that smoking passengers argued discriminated against them. The airlines created this problem by, over time, attempting to squeeze more and more passenger miles out of the same fleet by make seats smaller and adding seats into the same physical space in the cabin. Smokers couldn't argue that their smoking impacted other passengers. Some larger people also impact the passengers around them. However, before the move for more seats, it was less of an issue; and thus no need for a policy that puts the responsibility for stupid business decisions back on the customer.

    1) you've set me on the right path…curb your sarcasm. Point taken.

    2) Regardless of whether KSmith fit in this particular seat on this particular occasion or not. Or whether the people around him complained or not, the root cause of this customer's dissatisfaction is a decision made someplace else, upstream in the business.

    Thats my angle. All too often, companies make bad decisions and customer service is left cleaning up the mess.

    Thanks again.

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