Your Employees are Your Competitive Advantage, REALLY

How many companies say “Our Employees are Our Most Important Asset,” but their actions don’t match these hollow words?

This is not the case at Southwest Airlines, where employees are valued in all phases of their relationship with the company’s management from the hiring process; allowing them to do their job and to make decisions that don’t quite follow the “rules,” but are often the right decision for the circumstance; to letting an employee go—tough LUV—who isn’t a match for the company’s culture.

Colleen Barrett, Southwest Airlines President Emeritus, was our keynote speaker at ASP’s (Association of Strategic Planning) annual conference. Her recently published book, Lead with LUV, co-authored with Ken Blanchard details Southwest Airline’s formula for success.

One of my favorite quotes from the book epitomizes Southwest Airline’s history:

“Profit is the applause you get for creating a motivating environment for your people and taking care of your customers.”  The airline has been profitable since 1973 two years after it was formed. Hmmmm treating your Employees as Customers works!

Another favorite quote: “We’re in the Customer Service business—we just happen to provide airline transportation.”

Southwest Airline’s employees do their best to ensure that Customers have a safe, on-time flight, for a reasonable price, with as little stress as possible, in a caring environment with a little humor to boot. In these tough times, Southwest Airlines does not charge an extra fee for luggage, unlike all its competitors who do. A resulting customer benefit is that the planes are not crammed full of luggage which takes a long time to stuff into compartments. A resulting operational benefit is passengers get on and off the planes faster, so Southwest Airlines can turn them around faster than the competition.

Employees follow servant leadership practices where they serve first and lead second at every level of the company. This promotes the egalitarian attitude that prevails at Southwest Airlines and makes it such a desirable place to work! Servant leadership was inspired by Robert K Greenleaf: A Life of Servant Leadership by James Sipe and Don Frick . In addition to traditional approaches, such as sending out cards on employees’ birthdays or anniversary dates of hire, the company sends notes of sympathy and condolence to employees when their family members are sick or die. As in cooperative intelligence leadership, all levels of management pitch in to get the job done. When the plane lands, everyone rushes to clean it out, including the pilots, as one of Southwest Airline’s competitive advantages is the speed with which that aircraft is back into the air producing revenue.

Southwest Airlines has a painstaking hiring process, and they run a lean operation. While many candidates have simlar professional qualifications and experience, it’s the right attitude and behavior that differentiate those who are hired and who stay—which is most employees. What differentiates my experience with Southwest Airlines, is the fun that the employees share with us customers.

One of my favorite customer service stories Colleen shared was just after 9 11 when one of the pilots rented a bus to take his stranded, stressed out passengers to the movies. He didn’t have to ask management’s permission, and didn’t tell management what he had done. Management heard from delighted customers. Southwest Airlines has many, many delighted customers. It has grown to be one of the largest US carriers from its humble roots in 1971, where it had to fight hard against the major US airlines to even enter the business.

Southwest Airlines is true to its original goal to make air transportation affordable for most people. What’s interesting to me as a competitive intelligence professional is how Southwest Airlines has publicized its competitive advantages for years giving its competitors the opportunity to study, analyze and adapt them to their operation. The one thing that just doesn’t translate is the supportive, egalitarian and fun loving culture that Southwest Airlines has valued right from its inception.

I was one of the lucky ASP attendees to win a copy of Colleen’s book which she signed “with LUV”.

Win/Loss Analysis book gives you a process to learn why you’re losing business and how to keep more of it!

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