Contributed By: Carmine Gallo
If you’re one of the 100 million passengers who fly Southwest Airlines every year, you might have noticed their award-winning service—happy, friendly employees who go the extra mile to satisfy their passengers. In fact, for many people, service is the principle reason they remain loyal Southwest customers. In recent discussions with Southwest executives, pilots, and employees, I’ve learned that what Southwest passengers don’t see is largely responsible for what they do see during their trip.
Southwest Airlines has been operating for 43 years. Remarkably, after 40 consecutive years of profitably, they never rest on their laurels. Like all true customer service champs, Southwest executives and employees are always striving to improve their service, culture, and to create even more loyal customers.
In January 2013, Southwest unveiled a new corporate vision and purpose, intended to motivate an internal audience of employees to raise their game. Now, let’s face it. Nearly every company seems to have a “vision” statement, which, in most cases, is largely forgotten soon after it’s rolled out. Southwest doesn’t want that to happen, so it’s using the power of storytelling to make sure each one of its 46,000 employees pursues the vision each and every day. Southwest is doing so by rallying employees around a common purpose. Let me explain because the Southwest model offers a valuable lesson for any company seeking to motivate and engage its employees.
First, let’s start with the difference between vision and purpose. A vision is aspirational. It casts a dream for what you want your company to become. It should be ambitious and audacious. In January 2013, Southwest told its employees:
Our vision is to become the world’s most loved, most flown, and most profitable airline.
In order to accomplish its vision, Southwest needs every one of its executives, pilots, and employees to work together for a common purpose. A paycheck is usually enough to get most people to work on time, but only an inspiring purpose beyond a paycheck will encourage people to go the extra mile. According to Southwest CEO Gary Kelly, “Southwest is a great place to work and brings the greatest joy because we have such meaningful purpose.” A purpose should answer the question, “Why do we exist?” At the same time Southwest revealed its new ‘vision,’ it also announced the following purpose:
We exist to connect people to what’s important in their lives through friendly, reliable, and low-cost air travel.
The next step is where communication really plays a starring role. Storytelling is the single most effective way to remind employees of the company’s purpose and to reinforce the purpose in their day-to-day interactions with customers. Every week Gary Kelly gives a “shout out”—public praise—to employees who have gone above and beyond to show great customer service. Each month the Southwest Spirit magazine features the story of an employee who has gone above and beyond. Southwest highlights positive behaviors through a variety of recognition programs and awards. Finally, internal corporate videos like this one are filled with real examples and stories to help employees visualize what each step of the purpose looks and feels like.
In one video, Jessica, a Southwest customer, talks about the day she and her family saw her husband off for a six-month deployment in Kuwait. Kelli, a customer service agent, saw the family and asked if they all wanted to go to the gate. “It bought us thirty more minutes to spend time together,” Jessica said. Yet another employee asked if the family would like to go on the plane. The man’s children were able to give him one last hug as passengers cheered.
SWA employees give Jessica and her kids another chance to say goodbye to their dad before he leaves for Kuwait
Reliability stories at Southwest often focus on business travel (Southwest is the top-rated airline among business travelers). In one video a businesswoman says, “they board the fastest, they get my bags off the fastest, which is efficient. I know exactly when I will land every week and I can easily schedule my meetings because I know they’ll be on-time.”
In one video, Vicki, a passenger and a soon-to-be grandmother, received a call from her pregnant daughter who had been diagnosed with a serious medical condition. Vicki was a teacher and didn’t have much money, but Southwest’s low rates allowed her to take five round trips from Orlando to Birmingham during the pregnancy and when the grandchild was born. “I realized what a significant role Southwest had played in the whole story,” Vicki said. Another video shows a mother’s emotional reaction as she sees her daughter show up unexpectedly at her doorstep during the holidays. The daughter didn’t have enough money to fly home, but one night she received a “ding alert” (notices of limited-time fare deals). The low price allowed her to book a flight for the next day and to give her mom “the best gift she could receive.”
Although anyone can view these videos on YouTube, they were not necessarily intended for the public. They are meant to motivate and educate Southwest’s internal audience, to remind them why they matter to millions of people. “Because of you, me and my family have a memory for a lifetime,” Jessica says into the camera. “Because of you, I was able to be at my daughter’s side during a difficult pregnancy,” says Vicki.
Southwest Airlines did not become one of America’s most admired companies and a benchmark for customer service by resting on its laurels. Southwest refined its vision and purpose despite posting 40 consecutive years of profitability. This philosophy—never being satisfied with the status quo—traces its origin to Southwest founder Herb Kelleher. He said the core of the company’s success is the most difficult thing for a competitor to imitate. “They can buy all the physical things. The things you can’t buy are dedication, devotion, loyalty—the feeling that you are participating in a crusade,” Kelleher said.
Do your employees feel as though they are participating in a crusade? Do they have a sense of purpose beyond receiving a paycheck twice a month? “It’s not one of the enduring mysteries of all time,” Kelleher once said. “A motivated employee treats the customer well. A customer is happy so they’ll keep coming back, which pleases the shareholder. It’s just the way it works.”
Carmine Gallo is the communications coach for the world’s most admired brands. He is a popular keynote speaker and author of several books, including The Apple Experience, Secrets To Building Insanely Great Customer Loyalty. Carmine’s upcoming book, Talk Like TED, reveals the 9 public-speaking secrets of the world’s top minds. Sign up for Carmine’s newsletter and follow him on Facebook or Twitter.
Gordon Conner is a Branding Consultant/Coach and Copywriter who helps build WOW brands for small local businesses. He has been providing advertising, marketing, branding and copywriting services for 39 years and lives in Midlothian, Virginia. He can be reached at Gordon@BranWorks.com, or www.BranWorks.com.