Flying High and Well-Grounded: How Virgin and Southwest Practice Airline Employee Ambassadorship


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Richard Branson and Herb Kelleher never studied HR theory or staff management principles. That said, they’ve proven to be pretty good at it. Both understand (in the case of Sir Richard at Virgin Group) and understood (in the case of Herb Kelleher at Southwest Airlines) the value of putting people and customers first, HR practice second.

As my colleague Colin Shaw has written about Branson and Virgin, with respect to the company providing a year of fully paid leave following the birth or adoption of a child: “…Virgin values their people and their emotional state while working there.” In the same post, Colin acknowledged the value of employee ambassadorship and the direct connection between employee experience and customer experience. He also noted that few companies successfully meld value optimization approaches for both groups of stakeholders: “Despite much evidence that points to the link, many organizations continue to keep the two areas separate in their efforts. However, the separate area strategy is not the direct path to success for either.”

Specifically with regard to ambassadorship at Virgin, and how it is built on emotional sensitivity, Colin determined that two key values are generated by linking employee and customer experience:

“First, it shows Virgin values employees and wants them to feel like their employer cares about their personal lives and needs. Secondly, it shows that Virgin understands that an employee’s personal emotional state carries over into the emotional state they present to, and create for, customers.”

Wish I’d said that, because it encapsulates both the value of stakeholder group linkage and the real-world value of ambassadorship.

Among airlines, working in a supportive, trusting, fun, responsive and energetic culture isn’t confined to staff at Virgin. Southwest Airlines, a company serving more than 100 million passengers per year, also pursues similar approaches with employees, recognizing that these benefits, and living purpose and values, are the foundation for passionate and ambassadorial behavior. Per an article for Forbes by Carmine Gallo, Herb Kelleher’s formula for success at Southwest was three-fold (amended and expanded somewhat by me):

1. Create a culture of inclusion and service

Culture is the character and personality of the organization. It’s what makes the company unique and is the sum of its values, traditions, beliefs, interactions, behaviors, and attitudes. When corporate culture is strong, there is high alignment of accepted values and behaviors within the organization, and employees feel positive about their company, workplace, the value proposition of its products and services and, optimally, the customers.

At Southwest, the essence of their culture is that employees rank first, customers second, and shareholders third. Since the company’s founding almost 50 years ago, part of its corporate mantra and mindset is that the enterprise is in the customer service business – they just happen to fly airplanes. Central to executing this vision is a culture where people come first. Southwest’s leaders have believed that if they treat employees right, employees will treat customers right, and this, in turn, will created desired passenger business and profits.

As Kelleher has said: “We tell our people, ‘Don’t worry about profit. Think about customer service.’ Profit is a by-product of customer service. It’s not an end in and of itself.” Building employee ambassadorship, supported by a stakeholder-centric culture, has a trickle-down effect.

2. Hire for attitude and dedication first

At Southwest, talent acquisition and management are multi-layered. According to Julie Weber, VP of People at Southwest, the company isn’t so much looking for specific skills and background (although alignment between applicant capabilities and skillset is recognized) as for spirit, a desire to perform, persevere and innovate, an ability to put others first and proactively serve customers.

These attributes and expectations are on every job description, and hiring for values – so essential in founder Kelleher’s concept of how an airline should run – help to keep Southwest on top. As he 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.”

Virgin also fiercely believes in putting people first, placing a premium on hiring for attitude and, like Southwest, only selecting about 1 out of every 100 who apply. Branson has noted: “This is a company that simply wouldn’t exist without the energy, the determination, the wit and the wisdom of our people.” This is what I’ve often described as embedding employee ambassadorship in the enterprise DNA, and connecting the employee experience with the customer experience.

3. Trust, empower, and enable employees to do the right thing (for each other, the company, and for customers)

Southwest not only hires the best people, the company also invests heavily in terms of cross-training, team-building, provision of resources, and development of independent thought, decision-making and servant leadership capabilities. Again, Southwest puts employees first, and gives them the “keys to the kingdom” regarding action latitude; but they want employees to have a common purpose — putting customers first.

Southwest well understands that guiding purpose, vision, mission, and values at most organizations are little more than words and concepts typically pushed by the CEO and HR or injected by employee engagement consultants. Results are that only the most dedicated employees pay attention to them and/or work in the customer’s and fellow employees’ best interests. At any typical employer, trust, empowerment, and enablement are given little more than flavor-of-the-month lip service and are rarely institutionalized or embedded in the culture.

There’s also a fourth method that Southwest uses to reinforce the stakeholder culture and employee behavior: Innovative reward and recognition programs that often include airline passengers. For example, Southwest gives coupons known as “Kick Tails” to their frequent flyers, but the coupons aren’t for customers. Instead, they are for the customers to act on behalf of the company in helping to reward employees by “catching them doing something right.” Employees can redeem coupons, using the codes on the back, for raffles and prizes. It’s a novel, and inclusive, way to reinforce employee ambassadorship and extend their highly stakeholder-centric culture.

In our work as customer experience consultants, we find that some companies apply literally none of Kelleher’s three basic formula elements. They are constrained by strong sales or product orientation, command and control fiefdom management, and little operating flexibility for, or trust in, employees. A somewhat higher percentage of companies are applying one of the three elements. Occasionally, we find a company applying two of the elements.

Rarely, though, do we find companies with the wisdom and discipline to apply and leverage all three components. Both Virgin and Southwest believe in, and practice, the art and science of keeping customers, and keeping them at the forefront of employees’ minds. Does yours?


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