Today I enjoyed the services of one of my “hero companies”: Southwest Airlines. Hero companies are those that do virtually everything well: great products, great service, great people, great marketing. There aren’t many companies on the list; Apple and Starbucks are definitely on it, and so is Southwest.
Southwest is one of the most underrated businesses of all time in my opinion. For them to be the most (and often the only) profitable airline year after year after year is nothing short of amazing, particularly when you consider that they do it despite charging extremely low fares. I also love the fact that they’ve further separated themselves by refusing to charge for bags while their competitors nickle and dime their customers–and their brand equity–to death.
But what might best differentiate Southwest from the competition is not only the way they motivate their employees, but the way the leverage their employees’ morale to enhance the customer experience.
I shot the above photos today with my Blackberry in the jetway of my plane as I was boarding a flight from Chicago to Denver. The life-size photos of Southwest employees smiling and waving at you made for a very warm and surprising welcome. And what was particularly impressive was how genuine the smile was on each and every person. I found myself thinking, “Man, these people really love working for this company.” And then I found myself smiling too, which is not something I’m used to doing when I board an airplane.
And it didn’t stop there. From takeoff to landing, the flight attendants and the flight crew were engaging and smart…and very funny. After reciting the mandatory instructions about how to use the flotation device in the event of a “water landing” (my all-time favorite euphemism, BTW), the flight attendant added, “So you can just paddle around until the Coast Guard arrives.” He then took us through the oxygen mask drill, telling us that if you’re traveling with a child, you should put your mask on first before putting the mask on the child. He then added, “And if you’re traveling with two children–(dramatic pause)–pick whichever one you think has the most potential.”
Both jokes were delivered with impeccable timing. And both were non-politically correct, which fits perfectly with the image of a company whose brilliant former CEO Herb Kelleher was known for chain-smoking, swigging Wild Turkey, and publicly arm-wrestling his fellow CEOs. This is a company with an attitude–and a very infectious one at that!
A big part of making customers loyal to your brand is getting them to think of the brand in personal terms, to feel like they know and like the people behind the brand, and to believe that those people care sincerely about their happiness. That can be hard to pull off when you’re a manufacturer, but when you’re in the service business, you have hundreds, thousands, or even tens of thousands of opportunities each day to have your employees build your brand equity with every customer encounter.
Unfortunately, very few service companies get that, but Southwest Airlines certainly does. And that’s why their brand equity continues to fly as high as their shareholders equity.