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I am one of the lucky people that get to fly about three out of four weeks every month.  I have lots and lots of references of the great examples that airlines offer . . . unfortunately most are great examples of horrible customer interactions!  But ALMOST without exception, Southwest Airlines staff delivers great experiences.  Every once in awhile there is that one employee who should probably be working for one of their competitors, as his/her attitude does not emulate what SWA works so hard to accomplish!  SWA understands that their success flows from their own people . . . a lesson we should all take to heart!

Make employees feel important.  Every manager should want their employees to feel that their company is the best company to work for, and that their job is the best job they have ever had!  If you like coming to work, that feeling gets passed around the entire organization and all the way to customers!

Here’s something you can do to make your employees feel important.  Employees often see things within your utility that could be improved.  Why don’t they say something?  My belief is that many employees think nothing would change or that nobody is really interested in their ideas.  Before your next management or company-wide meeting, send an e-mail in advance.  Identify one area that needs improvement and ask for help in creating a solution.  Ask everyone to bring one idea.  Send an e-mail to all the people who contributed suggestions and thank them.  Let them know which solution was used from the ideas submitted.  Explain how the idea will be implemented.  If none of the suggestions worked, explain why.  It’s vital to respond to employees immediately after they submit ideas.  They need to know that their ideas are welcome and that ongoing employee input is important to the utility’s success.

Hire new employees carefully.  With the job market in its current situation, anytime a job is posted, most companies are inundated with job applicants.  Statistically, most can only hire a fraction of them each year, if hiring at all.    Be selective!  Be highly selective!

Most utilities offer good benefits and pay.  Who wouldn’t want to work for a company that offers a secure future?   Well, there’s more to it than that.  Many utilities spend time and money hiring and training a new employee only to discover later that he or she doesn’t enjoying customer service. The new employee doesn’t want to deal with emotionally upset or frustrated customers or customers who have a problem that needs a solution.  How do you reduce or eliminate bad hires?  Use a personality profile tool to help you identify the prospect’s work characteristics before you make a hiring decision.  A small investment in personality profiling can save you time and money by reducing the number of bad hires.

Survey employees annually.  When is the last time you were asked to provide feedback about your company, what it’s like to work there and what suggestions you have for making improvements?

Unfortunately, for many the answer is that it has been a long time, if ever!

We find that it is not unusual to learn that lack of communication among all levels of the company is negatively impacting external and internal customer service.  Do you know how employees truly perceive management and internal processes at your company?  What do they like and dislike?  To find out, conduct a company-wide survey to find out what employees are really thinking.  Identify actions that will be taken to improve communication and internal processes.  From my experience, it sends a powerful message when a company really listens to its employees and takes action.

Train employees to succeed.  What are the standards for success at your company?  Does everyone have a clear understanding of what they are?  Have they been trained on how to perform and execute those standards?  Do one manager’s expectations differ drastically from another’s?  As leaders, are you expected to inspire greatness in your employees?

How much money is set aside in your budget this year to improve employees’ skills?  For example, it takes consistent and continual training to improve the customer service experience your customers receive. And if you only train front-line employees on customer service, you can’t expect the other departments to provide the same level of service internally.  Employee training is critical.

Southwest Airlines is a highly successful company, not only financially but also in exceeding customer expectations.  It is at the top of the airline industry’s customer satisfaction scale, and that goes straight to the bottom line.  Again, it all starts with the airline’s employees.

Here’s what Southwest does to create an outstanding staff.

  • Hire people who have an ability to care and communicate.  SWA’s philosophy is to hire for attitude and train for skills.  Based on the airline’s high level of customer satisfaction, this approach must be working.
  • Southwest follows a rule often ignored by other airlines – be nice and smile a lot.  Thus, it trains everyone, including back-office staff, to do just that.
  • Encourages and rewards employees for a job well done.
  • Encourages employees to give good performance, such as on-time departures.
  • Empowers their employees to act in the customer’s best interest.

Empowering employees makes sense for staff that interacts with external customers, but Southwest applies the same standard to internal employees such as accountants and technology personnel.  Their philosophy is if you have a grouchy boss who doesn’t care about you, how are you going to do a good job?

Much can be learned by understanding and embracing SWA’s approach to customer and employee relations.

What are you doing to be the best you can be, every day?  What are you doing to encourage your employees to do their best on the job every day?  What are you doing to create the kind of work environment that makes employees want to come to work?

David Saxby is president of Measure-X, a Phoenix-based measurement, training and recognition company that specializes in customer service and sales skill training for telecommunications companies.