Thursday, November 5, 2009

NACCM 2009: From Emotion to Devotion: Wiring the Experience with Humanity to Drive Loyalty. Planes and People Making LUV Connections

We’ve all heard it said that we should put our customers first. Southwest Airlines doesn’t think so. Their philosophy is to put employees first. In fact, the company believes that happy employees = happy customers = happy shareholders, says Teresa Laraba, Vice President of Ground Operations for Southwest Airlines.

Southwest began in 1971 with 3 aircrafts serving 3 cities. Today, under the leadership of CEO Gary Kelly, it is one of the nation’s largest domestic airlines in terms of daily departures and customers carried. They have the safest record, best on-time performance, consistently low fares and the best flight schedules, reports Laraba.

The secret of their success is in the fact that they hire the best front liners. They hire based on attitude and look for people who “live the Southwest way” says Laraba. It takes a servant’s heart willing to follow the Golden Rule, a warrior spirit to do what it takes, and a fun loving attitude that encourages employees to take the work seriously, but not themselves. Needless to say, Southwest experiences high employee retention. Laraba herself has been with Southwest for 25 years.

Empowering employees to do the right thing is key says Laraba. They do this by having employees follow these principles:

Guidelines rather than rules
Golden Rule overrides what few rules we have
Lean toward the Customer and you’ll never get in trouble
Our employees take pride in finding solutions

Southwest has an entire department, Internal Customer Care, responsible for recognizing employee birthdays and anniversaries and giving gifts and care packages. They believe in treating each other like family and being there for their employees in good times and tough times.

What do they get by investing in their employees? Their customers see the difference. This is brought home in a quote from President Emeritus Colleen Barrett, “We are in the Customer Service Business. We just happen to fly airplanes.”

Southwest understands the power of saying “we’re sorry”. A Customer Communication department focuses on contacting customers within 72 hours of an issue and apologizes when Southwest does something wrong. They create customer evangelists by going above and beyond, doing whatever it takes, with proactive communication. They choose to make regular deposits in the “Goodwill Bank” says Laraba.

Southwest’s influence goes beyond the airport and into the community. Employees are encouraged to embrace causes and they do. For example, Southwest has raised approximately $11 million dollars for Ronald McDonald House.

The company is always looking for ways to improve the customer experience. Some of these improvements have included self-service kiosks, online and mobile check-in, power stations, redesigned gate areas, wireless access, and cashless cabins.

Southwest Airlines is a true example of leadership in action with an unwavering commitment to employees. This commitment has fueled their success and will continue to put them on the map as a company to model.

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