Creating great customer service and high customer engagement isn’t always easy; however, it is worth doing!

So, what’s “Luv” got to do with It? A lot, and Southwest’s high performance culture, high profitability and long term success are a testament to the importance of putting people first. I recently experienced this first hand.

Does anyone ACTUALLY like flying? Seriously, everyone loves the free pretzels, and if you’re lucky free movies and WIFI, but actually going to the airport, dealing with security, getting on the plane?


You spend what feels like years of your life in line, waiting to take off, and sitting still. And inevitably you’re seated in between two babies, at least one of whom will cry the entire flight. We’ve all been there. How an airline helps to manage that experience to make it as smooth as possible for customers is important to success. Southwest excels at trying to create a positive customer experience. A huge part of how they excel at this – they create a culture where employees truly love to work.

“I’ve discovered that in business, doing the right thing usually happens to be the smart thing.”

– Gary Kelly, CEO Southwest Airlines

Most of us have heard about the Southwest culture, the values, the customer service, and the stories that make them successful. Recently I had the opportunity to experience this customer centric and high employee engagement culture first hand. Shortly after a slightly warm flight to Dallas, I was surprised to receive an email from Southwest Airlines. The email came from a “Proactive Customer Service Communication” representative and apologized for any discomfort, and went on to offer me a credit to apply toward my next Southwest reservation – a “Luv Voucher” I didn’t even make the request, nor did I complain, I simply made one polite comment to a flight attendant asking if they could turn the AC up – but Southwest was proactive.

Now Southwest has always prided themselves on great customer service. Southwest has a long history of dedicating themselves to customer satisfaction: that’s not to say that every single Southwest flight is a perfect experience, but when something goes wrong, they proactively work to overcome it, and this gesture is certainly a way to build customer loyalty.

With CEO’s all over the internet and the media talking up how fantastic their companies are, it’s easy to tune out the message or think it just a cash making ploy, however at Southwest the CEO believes in the values and that belief has in fact trickled down to employees and to customers. As CEO Gary Kelly said “…we are a team – and while we don’t strap on helmets and pads, we are united, like all great teams, by a singular purpose. Our purpose is to connect people to what’s important in their lives through friendly, reliable, and low cost air travel. And our success is dependent on our ability to execute and fulfill that purpose.”

Given my experience that’s not lip service – so way to go to Gary and the Southwest team for walking the talk. When leadership believes in the values and culture, in providing a great customer experience, in caring for employees, this translates to customers. Southwest serves as a great example of what we at Tolero Solutions do in our work, facilitate sustainable growth by maximizing people –> performance –> profit™, developing people and creating organizations that are more responsive, productive and profitable. (Hey Gary – if you happen to read this – I’d love to chat some details on how you feel you’ve managed to do this so successfully at Southwest)

How’d they do it? Let’s take a look at what has gone into making Southwest’s corporate culture so successful in creating great customer service and earning employee and customer loyalty:

  • They Focus on Employees Happiness: As they say “happy employees=happy customers”. Southwest is devoted to keeping their employees happy. They value teamwork from the top down. Over 40 years they’ve never reduced employee pay or benefits. They value diversity in suppliers and employees. They celebrate employees by putting on fun and creative events like Halloween and “deck” parties (that sounds like something out of Mad Men!), and they’ve dedicated their offices to displaying employee achievements, both professional and personal. The walls are lined in family photos and memorabilila. Southwest also works to provide educational opportunities for employees: they operate the Southwest University for People, which provides training programs in leadership, and both professional and personal skills. As a result, they have a high employee retention rate (73% stay to at least the third year!).
  • They Know Their Identity: Southwest stands out for a variety of reasons. They bring an approach of simplicity and humor to the flying experience, and they stick to it. As a result, they can offer flyers simple perks, like a quicker turnaround time in the airport (believe me, this is major…). Their cabins are often cleaner, thanks to the simple service of snack and beverage, and they are slightly larger and more frequently updated than Southwest’s competitors. Southwest also prides itself on the concept of no-fees — it doesn’t cost extra to check the standard two bags, and they don’t have a fuel surcharge. They don’t believe in nickel and diming customers. A huge part of their identity is also allowing employees to express themselves, use humor (or use rhymes and rap to explain safety instructions) and bring their passions to work. Happier employees equal happier customers. Happier customers equal high profits. A win-win.
  • They Own Their Mistakes: The idea of offering not only an apology, but credit, for an in-flight inconvenience is amazing – particular in the airline industry in today’s economy. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one to make mention of the cabin being hot, however they didn’t have to do anything. Southwest choose to be proactive and issue a credit to passengers on my flight. This shows that they understand the importance of people, of customer happiness and customer loyalty. Southwest thinks about what will make their customers happy, and when they are unable to do that, for whatever reason, they work hard to rectify the mistake.

People always seem to complain about negative experiences; however the positive experiences often go unacknowledged. As an organization development and culture practitioner, and a happy customer, I wanted to share my positive experience. Southwest has cultivated a corporate culture over the past forty-five years (the company was established in 1967) that celebrates the employee and customer experience. And it has proved to be incredibly successful for them – I know I’ll be flying Southwest more frequently!

Do you want to create a high performance culture with high employee engagement and customer loyalty? If you can’t get a hold of Gary over at Southwest, I’m happy to talk about how we may be able to assist. And remember…culture matters!