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A timely lesson from Southwest Airlines. Do your employees see “The BIG Picture”, too?

Another company consistently in the news for providing great service, besides Amazon.com, is Southwest Airlines.

Their inspirational hero pilot story made headlines across the globe last week. The best service isn’t necessarily about getting a plane to depart on time or sticking to policy. In fact, it can mean making a decision to put one customer above others.

The pilot held back a plane with hundreds of passengers for twelve minutes – so that one passenger could make the flight. As Christopher Elliot, the consumer advocate and journalist who first broke this story wrote: “Twelve minutes may not sound like a lot to you or me, but every second counts when you’re an airline. Southwest can turn an entire plane around in about 20 minutes, so 12 minutes is half an eternity.”

In this instance, the pilot put one category – service mindset – above others in the four categories of value in “The BIG Picture”:

  • Primary product – transporting a passenger from one place to another, within a promised time window.
  • Delivery system – ticketing channels, the destinations and airports they serve, baggage services, the planes passengers fly on.
  • Service mindset – how passengers are served and treated by Southwest employees.
  • Ongoing relationship – engendering of relationships to encourage repeat travel on Southwest and gain customer loyalty.

The pilot delayed departure for twelve minutes – the primary product. He also delayed hundreds of passengers, potentially jeopardizing Southwest’s relationship with them and inviting demands for compensation.

However, the best service happens when you do something that truly matters for someone. The pilot’s demonstration of an outstanding service mindset has generated immense adoration, admiration and goodwill for him and Southwest Airlines.

I am not sure the pilot was analyzing the situation in the manner described above. Maybe he ‘went with his heart’. The point is, though, that organizations can ensure that all their employees are educated to make such decisions. Such examples of unbelievable service can also be used to teach other employees so they see fundamental service principles at work and learn how to apply them to their own jobs.

Too many companies rely on clichés such as:

  • ‘The customer is king’ (If that’s the case then the hundreds of passengers already on the plane should be ‘more important’ than the single one yet to get on.)
  • ‘Go the extra mile’ (For whom? And how do you do that?)
  • ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ (Different people value different things. And it’s not about you!)

It is time to do more. Equip your employees with a clear understanding of fundamental service principles. Help them see how to apply these principles in their own jobs every day. Create an uplifting culture that motivates your team members to excel in the service they provide to others. Make it safe for employees to ‘try new things’, to take new actions to create value for customers and for colleagues.

Southwest Airlines seized the opportunity to declare how “proud” they are of the pilot. Such public recognition of an employee who took a great risk by doing something ‘new’ is surely an inspiration to the rest of their employees as well. And to us all.

Posted on 26 January 2011 | >>Comments
Categorized under  Service Education
Tags: , , ,

  1. Quazi M Ahmed wrote on January 26th, 2011 at 17:35 | #1

    Hi Ron,

    I am still not convinced whether this was a good thing to do by the pilot…as he delayed other passengers….where do you see the value, though?

  2. Ron Kaufman (Founder) wrote on January 27th, 2011 at 01:27 | #2

    Good question!

    In this instance, as the pilot delayed take-off by 12 minutes, he likely had the ability to accelerate the flight by this short amount of time – landing “on time” at the destination. This burns a bit more jet fuel, but would allow him to take care of both service areas: exceptional service to the individual customer in need, and reliable service to the entire aircraft full of equally valuable customers.

  3. Pradeep Bijlwan wrote on February 16th, 2011 at 00:41 | #3

    Everyday flights are delayed without any reason given or understood by the customers. This is a case where the reason and justification to do so make us believe that we are still Human Beings and not machines. I fully give the pilot well deserved respect for his action. No matter how people try to reason out that he was wrong – we all know what he did was amazing, and was the right thing to do.

  4. John Tango wrote on May 5th, 2011 at 03:03 | #4

    This is an exception rather than the rule. Some airlines brand themselves with a reputation for arriving on time which generally means timely departure versus the exception of speeding up to arrive on time.

    Making this exception has it risks, one of which is that it might encourage other passengers to be tardy. I suppose the pilot in this case made a judgement call based on the situation and circumstances he was in. And that would be okay, otherwise it encourages customers to demand ground crew to hail the pilot to come back as it taxing off the terminal to the runway.

  5. Nutan Bahl wrote on May 18th, 2011 at 23:06 | #5

    Ron, you’ve justified the Pilot’s action very well. Perhaps he had the ability and the expertise to assess the time frame required for taxing off the terminal to the runway and make it up later for landing on time at the destination. But all said and done, there is a huge risk involved !

  6. Abe Kazimierek wrote on June 29th, 2012 at 05:02 | #6

    As a road warrior, I truly admire what this pilot did. There have been a few occasions, where I have missed flights by just a couple minutes. I have arrived at the gate with the door shut and not able to board, yet the plane sat there for another 10-20 minutes. A few months ago when I connected in LAX on United, I arrived at my connecting flight and although the door was still open, the gate agent told me that he gave my seat away to a standby passenger. I asked him why… and that didnt his system show that I landed just 10minutes earlier and the exact gate I arrived in (so that he would know that I would be there within a reasonable walking time). He looked at me like I was from Mars… and just said he doesnt have time to check that! Interesting response to a Million Mile Flyer… so much for thanking me for my many years of loyalty!

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