“We’ve got Stephanie” – A Southwest Airlines Lesson in Client Service for Law Firms

by JD Supra Perspectives

In professional services, care for our clients should be at the center of all that we do.

Recently, I witnessed firsthand the complete customer focus by the employees of Southwest Airlines. Due to major storms in the west, many flights were delayed or cancelled causing major backups at Chicago’s Midway Airport. The terminals were crowded, passengers were exhausted from a day spent waiting to get to their next destination and employees of the airport and the airlines were fielding a non-stop barrage of complaints and questions.

And then there was Stephanie.

She was holed up somewhere in the very crowded airport to escape the chaos and perhaps get a little rest. The plane that was on its way, being delayed time and again seemed like a distant dream. So, Stephanie simply retreated.

I don’t know Stephanie but I’ve been her, trapped somewhere I didn’t want to be for far too long. Exhausted from time spent doing nothing but shuffling and being shuffled. And feeling at the mercy of an organization where I had no control.

Enter Southwest Airlines and their stellar employees.

Late at night, the plane finally arrived and all waiting passengers eagerly boarded hoping that the flight to their next destination would be quick and uneventful. After everyone was on, the loudspeakers in Midway began the call for Stephanie. Over the next 10 minutes, calls for Stephanie were heard over and over again. The employees even mentioned how they knew that Stephanie had been in the airport all day and surely didn’t want to miss her flight. Based on my airline travels to date on different airlines, the plane doors would have closed long before anyone was given multiple chances to board.  And when it seemed that surely the doors would close and the plane would leave without her, Stephanie lumbered up with an enormous backpack on her back and completely covered with a large blanket. She seemed to be walking in a daze, not a rush, toward the awaiting plane. Her walk one of resignation. The airline employees handled it with grace and control, simply stating over the loudspeaker “We’ve got Stephanie.”

At the time, I found the entire episode hilarious. Whether punch drunk from sitting in an airport for far too long or whether it was actually a funny moment, it struck me as a defining one for client service. As a company, Southwest gave their employees the freedom to make a decision to seek out a passenger and not let time dictate their decisions. In addition, the company set the tone by training everyone in their mission which is “dedication to the highest quality of customer service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and company spirit.”

...Southwest gave their employees the freedom to make a decision to seek out a passenger and not let time dictate their decisions. 

In professional services, care for our clients should be at the center of all that we do. If that client is burdened, exhausted, unwilling to move at our pace or hiding from unwanted issues we need to look for ways to meet them where they are.  Sometimes that may mean waiting a moment longer to give them time to catch up.

While I will still think of Stephanie as a traumatized traveler, the employees of Southwest being willing to hold a plane full of antsy and irritable passengers in order to appease just one underscores to me their full commitment and focus on each individual customer. They not only “got Stephanie” in the physical sense but also in the emotional sense in that they realized how frustrated she was from a day stuck in the airport. 

Do your clients know you have them covered?

How can your firm ensure that your clients know that you’ve got them covered in all situations? How can you take small steps to ensure that your clients understand that you treat their burdens as your own so that they stick around?

This isn’t simply an effort to “feel good” about your firm, but one that affects your bottom line.  Surveys in the industry reveal the following:

  • increasing [client] retention rates by as little as 5%, [companies] typically see profit increases ranging from 25% to 95% (survey by Bain & Company)
  • the number one most important factor in a customer’s loyalty is reducing their effort (the work they must do to get their problem solved) (survey by Harvard Business Review)
  • selling to an existing happy customer is up to 14x higher than the probability of selling to a new customer (survey by Marketing Metrics)

How can you realize these returns? Treat your clients and your clients’ problems as your own. Meet them where they are and wait for them. They may be dealing with more than you can imagine.

Do you have a name for your ideal client that will help you define best practices for your client service efforts? Why don’t you call her Stephanie.


[Society 54 Co-Founder Heather McCullough is two parts wit and one part tenacity, with heaping doses of creativity and intellect on the side. Heather represents the power of hard work, strategy and collaboration. For more than 14 years, she has brought game-changing results to professional services firms through coaching and consulting on business development and client service best practices.]

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