Spirit Air’s Harvey: We want to be known “as the good guys”

heather harveyHeather Harvey is the manager of customer relations at Spirit Airlines. A few days ago, she posted an interesting comment on my site, saying that she had been “tasked with turning our customer perception around.” Spirit gets more than its fair share of complaints, so I wanted to give her an opportunity to explain. Here’s our interview.

Q: What are you trying to turn around?

Harvey: Based on our customer feedback 99.9 percent of our customers are satisfied with our service. My goal is to reach out to that .1 percent and to find out where we didn’t meet their expectations. From what I am seeing – we can get rid of a lot of misconceptions within the airlines by providing our customers with clearer expectations. Spirit Airlines is currently tackling this project.

I want Spirit to be known as the good guys, the ones who offer the total package: safe, on time, a great price, a friendly smile and stress free travel.

Q: What is Spirit’s current reputation for customer service? What would you like it to be?

Harvey: Well, I’ve definitely seen a shift in the last six months. We received more compliments in the month of April than all of 2007. I’ve even seen a shift in your blog. You enabled customers to get directly in touch with me and upper management. I have to be honest, that is the best thing that could have happened to our company. This has been another avenue to communicate with our customers.

Q: I’m happy to be of service. How many queries do you handle from customers in an average month? And what’s your target response time for phone calls, letters and e-mail?

Harvey: We carried 548,605 passengers and the Customer Relations team handled 8,217 pieces of feedback in the month of June. These ranged from simple inquiries on how to print a boarding pass to situations where we messed up. Between the articles, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, HighFive and the list goes on – we are really trying to keep up with evolving
technology.

One thing we are contending with is the consumer expectations of instant responses. It used to be acceptable to once receive a response by mail in a matter of two to three weeks – people now have an expectation of just a few hours when they send an email. This has been a huge challenge for our company. When they do come to us for resolutions – be it phone calls, letters or e-mails they all get
responses within 48 hours. Naturally, postal mail takes additional time to be delivered.

Q: What’s the number-one customer service complaint that you get, and what is Spirit doing about it? What can customers do to make sure it doesn’t happen to them?

Harvey: Great question! The top complaints generally stem from our personnel not bending the rules. For example, we get a lot of requests for refunds on non-refundable tickets. The best advice I can give any customers when flying on any airline is to fully review everything prior to purchasing a ticket – read the policies. This doesn’t just go for Spirit – this applies to any airline you travel on. Also, we try to give customers the tools to avoid unforeseen expenses. Affordable travel insurance is offered in the booking path. Get it! It’s such an amazing little tool!

Q: What do you think people like about Spirit’s customer service?

Harvey: We have a true desire to help people. We admit that things don’t go as planned. We are operating multi-million dollar machines in an environment of unforeseen circumstances – rising oil costs, weather, viruses and so much more. We are not perfect, but when things don’t go as planned we want to make it right. Our employees are more than willing to get on the phone with you and hear your problem, answer your questions, or direct you to the right place. Also, the feedback we get from our customer’s is used every day to make improvements and bring things to light. Our customers can have the confidence, knowing that when they write an email, there will be a person to help them on the other end.

Q: Is it possible to run a profitable discount carrier and have happy customers? Or does an airline have to choose one over the other?

Harvey: Of course it is! Otherwise I wouldn’t really have much of a purpose here. I think Spirit is doing both. Just a few weeks ago we were awarded the Florida Business Award for the best company in the airline industry. If I may quote the article, “Spirit was hands down the top vote getter in the airline category, garnering 44 percent of the votes and beating out American, Delta, Southwest and United, among others.” We understand that running a successful business requires happy customers and we are working hard to achieve this.

Q: I noticed that you just wrapped up another $1 fare sale. When people are paying literally pennies for their tickets, what do you think they should expect from an airline, in terms of customer service?

Harvey: Regardless of how much people pay for their ticket, or how many miles they fly on us every week – everyone is treated equally. I don’t think it has to be more complicated than that.

Q: As a customer, what’s the best way to deal with an airline that doesn’t respond to a legitimate complaint? Should I appeal to an executive? Write to the Transportation Department? Hire an attorney? And at what point should you walk away and give up?

Harvey: I think it’s very important to first give the company a chance to fix the problem or explain themselves. Some people believe that by going outside the company for a resolution will get them the solution they are seeking, but in reality they won’t get anything more than what they are originally entitled to. In regards to Spirit, we make every effort to understand the customer’s interest and are committed to reaching a fair resolution. Knowing what you are entitled to is the absolute first step to presenting your case effectively.

Q: I wanted to ask you about fees. Spirit has quite a few of them. What are you hearing back from customers about some of the fees you charge for purchases, seat assignments and drinks? If there were one fee you could eliminate, which one would it be?

Harvey: I believe it about giving customers choices. These fees fit our business model. Many airlines don’t give you the option to remove things that you won’t be using, so what you’re getting is a bulk, inflated price. For example, if you are determined to sit in the front of the plane and need to check in Christmas presents, is it really fair to share the burden of that cost with the customer who didn’t mind where they sat and only brought a carry-on? This is the very essence of our product – only pay for what you are going to use.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at . Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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