The Southwest Way to Employee Satisfaction: Flying High Like the High Flier


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Southwest Airlines Airplane

Southwest is one of the most highly-rated airlines in the US when it comes to customer satisfaction. Spirit, on the other hand, is rated amongst the worst, in spite of its low fares. Stories about Southwest’s emphasis on employee satisfaction over customer satisfaction are legendary, and the company makes no bones about it. This is very evident from from employee survey data – Just compare each airline’s ratings on Glassdoor! Here’s Southwest’s review tally:

Southwest Airlines Glassdoor Ratings

And here’s Spirit’s:

Spirit Airlines Glassdoor Ratings

As you can see, Southwest garners a 4.4 rating and 86% of reviewers are likely to recommend them to friends, versus just 3.3 and 69% for Spirit. Is it any surprise that Southwest is at the top of their industry, while Spirit brings up the rear?

Many studies have found causation between employee satisfaction and Customer Success. Think Starbucks, where you are very likely to be greeted with a smile, and served by a happy and enthusiastic group of baristas. Recall Disneyland, where employees seem to glow with the “happiest place on earth” mantra. There are many more we can name, but the takeaway is: what lessons can other companies draw from these high fliers, as they seek fly higher themselves (pun intended)?

Why Are Others Missing the Mark?

Despite their best intentions, a myriad of companies are missing the mark when it comes to Customer Success. Recognizing this fact, many companies, especially in the technology world, are beginning to make serious investments in Customer Success. However, despite their best efforts to invest in the right people, processes and tools, they are not always able to replicate the results that companies like Southwest have achieved. So, what are they missing here?

Very often, the answer lies in their misplaced focus on short-term goals. Consider the most important tool to drive employee performance in their arsenal – compensation. Just like with Sales commissions, Customer Success professionals are compensated based on short-term results such as retention. This is partly for expediency – it’s easy to measure short-term results – but it’s mostly cultural – everyone from the CEO down is incentivized, in one way or another, to focus on the current quarter.

Unfortunately, this myopic view does not work as advertised. Customer Success professionals often complain that their targets are too stiff, that they don’t have the tools to perform effectively, that they don’t have access to data and insights, and that they are measured on outcomes that they don’t completely control. They are victims of a shortsighted system that focuses on outcomes, but is divorced from the grounded realities of the real world.

How You Can Drive Employee Satisfaction & Keep Customers Happy Too

To state the obvious, you will need to think long term about what you can do to keep your employees happy and motivated in the long run. Compensation is important, but it is only one of many important factors. You also need to develop a pervasive culture of prioritizing employee needs over customer and shareholder interests. While this may seem counterintuitive, it will take care of customer and shareholder interests in the long term. Just ask Southwest or Starbucks.

Here are four simple principles that you can adopt in your organizations:

First, you have to hire the right people. Adapt your hiring practices to prioritize and bring in employees that are driven by customer satisfaction, and take a proactive approach in every aspect of their role. Encourage and incentivize them to work with their teammates, and make investments in their personal and career development. Remember that it is about them, not you or the company. Starbucks offers its baristas the opportunity to graduate from a reputed school, while working at a store. Despite providing their employees this opportunity, they don’t have an attrition problem. Instead, Starbucks has developed a pool of highly qualified and loyal employees that has become crucial to the long-term success of the business.

Second, you must empower them with information and the authority to make key decisions. Give them as much autonomy as your business allows, and create mechanisms (such as dashboards) that shed light on the consequences of their actions. Accept, and to an extent, celebrate missteps made with the right intentions. Make it a point to publicly acknowledge and appreciate the results of their endeavors, as well as learn from what doesn’t work. Celebrating initiative allows employees to exercise their creativity, and keep innovating.

Third, make it a fun place to work. Avoid boring activities, and automate repetitive tasks that don’t add much value to them. Define playbooks that give them clear guidelines on how they should act under various circumstances. Where possible, automate the invocation of these playbooks. Give your employees the flexibility to do their thing, their way (again, subject to reasonable restrictions), and encourage and reward them for the risks they take. Of course, you should have the necessary controls in place to ensure that things don’t get out of hand.

Fourth, and most importantly, structure compensation to encourage long-term thinking. There are many lessons to be learned from Sales compensation, some to be incorporated and others to be avoided. Incentivizing individual team members based on overall customer satisfaction is likely to be a good idea. Resist the temptation to compensate teams based on short-term accomplishments, just because they are easier to measure. Structure your incentive plans in such a way that employees have a good chance of hitting the goals under that plan. The pace should be ambitious, but attainable, with a cohesive team atmosphere that encourages collaboration and helping teammates succeed.

In the recent past, there has been a movement towards cumulative incentive plans that eliminate the need to manipulate results around the boundaries of the quarter. Such techniques will encourage employees to think long-term.

All Images are Property of Strikedeck

Shreesha Ramdas
Shreesha Ramdas is SVP and GM at Medallia. Previously he was CEO and Co-founder of Strikedeck. Prior to Strikedeck, Shreesha was GM of the Marketing Cloud at CallidusCloud, Co-founder at LeadFormix (acquired by CallidusCloud) & OuterJoin, and GM at Yodlee. Shreesha has led teams in sales and marketing at Catalytic Software, MW2 Consulting, and Tata. Shreesha also advises startups on marketing and growth hacking.


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