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Most likely you’ve heard that Southwest Airlines is a unique and very successful company. You might have heard about their casual attire or seen their humorous nature first-hand.

When I lived in Dallas, I flew Southwest and remember their unusual style but reading more about them now I’m even more impressed.

For starters, they are the ONLY airline profitable every year since 1973. That is amazing – most airlines aren’t profitable even a few years in a row. How is this possible? What “secret sauce” does Southwest have to make it so successful while its competitors struggle? I know what it is. It is their undying devotion to customer #1 – their employees (this is how they say it). They put their employees first.

Yes, I am a tireless advocate of putting your customers first — and success with your customers starts by caring for your employees. Employees are the foundation of any good customer experience and relationship. Without the right support and focus on employees you can’t create loyalty, word of mouth and more.

Investing in employees means caring about their career development, identifying their talents and finding ways to use them. It will bring amazing things to light.

Let me share the 4 components that Southwest uses in their approach to sustaining their amazing culture (which is foundational to their success). Rita Bailey, during her tenure as director of the University for People, coined the acronym ACES to summarize Southwest’s approach to sustaining the culture: Attract, Communicate, Educate and Support.”:

1) “First, Southwest attracts the right people, hiring for attitude and only then training for skills….”

[I’ve seen this first hand – you can’t effectively train for attitude you must hire people who already have the passion and drive you need.]

2) “Second, Southwest communicates expectations. This communication ensures that employees know that Southwest wants personal caring, a sense of servanthood, and a sense of customer service in its employees.”

[Just last week someone was telling me that an organization chose to fire an employee rather than clarify expectations and work in tandem with the employee to reach the desired outcomes. That is a waste of time and money and surely doesn’t help the customer.]

3) “Third, Southwest focuses on education. At Southwest, learning occurs in a myriad of ways. Employees receive training in the classroom, which is then reinforced on the job; they are given access to the resources that will help them do their job effectively; and they receive training on both the technical and relationship aspects of their jobs.”

[I loved reading about this multi-faceted approach to training. It can’t be just a classroom seminar without follow-up and practical dialogue on the job.]

4) “Finally, the fourth letter of ACES represents the ongoing support that employees receive. For example, Southwest has the highest supervisor-to-customer-service-agent ratio of any airline, believing that supporting frontline employees is the most important factor for success. Furthermore, whenever there is a problem, upper management checks it out, seeking the root of the problem, being careful not to blame the frontline employee if the problem lies elsewhere.

[This is refreshing to read – that frontline employees aren’t blamed automatically. Oftentimes there are many forces behind the scene that lead to customer angst (marketing, sales and product managers all having their own priorities and messages for example)].

Another powerful ingredient in their “secret sauce” is employee empowerment. Employees have the opportunity to be creative in solving problems. They aren’t forced to use prescribed solutions that may not fit. They are expected to use their judgment to make sure the customer has the “kind of experience that is going to bring them back.” Sounds great to me!

Here’s an example of how this pays off:
After 9/11 the company asked employees to help them save money in whatever ways they could and because of the creativity of the employees there were no layoffs. Plus their customers told Southwest to keep the money they paid for air tickets even though they were wanted to cancel their travel plans.

Talk about loyalty. You need a plan for this kind of loyalty. Start with your employee plan.


*Excerpts from “
Soul at Work” by Margaret Benefiel

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