The secret to outstanding customer service comes from the heart and the soul, not the brain, and it must involve everyone in the organization, said Herb Kelleher, executive chairman and co-founder of Southwest Airlines.
Kelleher, famous for instilling a culture of fun that has translated into high customer satisfaction ratings for his company, was rewarded for his lifetime achievements Thursday when he received the second annual Global Services Leader of the Year Award from the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University.
Speaking at a meeting of the Economic Club of Phoenix, where he received the award, Kelleher said there is no magic formula for good customer service, but a desire to serve the customer has to come from each employee. For that reason, the company is careful about who it hires, he said.
"We will sacrifice experience and education to get a good attitude if we have to," he said. "It is attitude that makes all the difference in the world."
The attitude that Southwest seeks in its employees is summed up in the slogan "we smile because we want to, not because we have to," he said. "It’s the intangibles that are most important."
The management philosophy of the airline is to treat employees well, knowing that in turn they will treat customers well, he said. The chairman told the story of a vice president who complained that a flight attendant or mechanic could see Kelleher more easily than he could. "I said they’re more important than you are," Kelleher said.
Among the techniques used by the company to try to make employees feel cared for are to recognize life milestones such as the birth of a baby or the death of a relative and also to recognize contributions that employees make to their communities, he said.
The company is not afraid to tell customers who create difficulties not to come back, he said.
"You can’t show respect for your people, you can’t show that you’re really concerned about them . . . if one of your passengers hits a customer service agent over the head with a stanchion and we say, ‘Well, you’re always right. Here’s another stanchion,’ " he said.
The company also has developed some unorthodox methods for testing potential employees for attitudes during the job interview process. One technique is to conduct group interviews, which helps to reveal how candidates respond to other people, he said. When a candidate is asked a question, the supervisors will not only listen to the answer but also will watch how others in the group react — whether they are supportive and interested or if they’re paying any attention, he said.
Stuffed shirts need not apply, he said. "We told our pilots we don’t interview anyone in suits; they have to wear Southwest Airlines shorts," he said. "The ones that thought that was funny we hired."
Stephen Brown, executive director of the Center for Services Leadership at the W.P. Carey School, cited among Kelleher’s achievements the company’s ability to maintain its customer service culture even as it has grown to more than 31,000 employees. He added that the company has been profitable for 32 years and has never furloughed an employee.