Company Culture + Smart Hiring = Exceptional Service

Over the years, as I have talked and spoken about the human side of business, I have often cited Southwest Airlines as an example. From the time they started in business, they always focused on their people. I often heard the mantra that their employees were their number one customer. If they take care of their employees, the employees will take care of their flying customers. Recently, Southwest acquired AirTran Airways. It was easy to imagine that the merger might have put a crimp in their philosophy. Well, it hasn’t.

Recently Bill and I flew to Chicago to see our newest grandson. We flew Southwest Airlines because it was convenient—a non-stop from Tucson to Chicago Midway. It was the lowest cost, there were no bag charges, and we could choose our own seats. We even had exit row seating on the way up at no extra cost.

The flights were all on time and the flight crew was friendly and happy. Our first choice for flying is Southwest Airlines. With the addition of AirTran Airways, we will have more possibilities to fly them.


Top Flight Attitude

In the past, I have read articles in their Spirit magazine about Southwest’s approach to customer service and articles about the people who provide that service. These articles tend to show that there is more to these people than just the job.

I always look through the magazine to read those articles. But this time there was more to read. Gary Kelly, the chairman of Southwest, had his usual column, but this time he reiterated why they are successful and profitable and asked “what makes the difference at Southwest?” To quote him, “The difference is this: Everything begins and ends with our people. If we keep our employees happy and engaged, they will keep our customers happy, who will reward us with their loyalty.”

I have always believed in and promoted the same philosophy. It starts with a good hire. Like Southwest, I recommend that you hire for attitude and train for skill. I know you have heard me say that often. But you may have also heard that the problem in hiring is that owners tend to hire for skills and ultimately fire for attitude and behavior.

Yet another other factor that is key to successful hiring is the reputation of the business.

People want to work for Southwest Airlines. Kelly said that in 2012 the airline hired 2,499 candidates, but it had received 114,845 resumes applying for those positions.

To quote him again, “We take great pride in hiring the right people, and spend a lot of energy on doing so.”

However, it is more than just a good hire, it is also the right culture. Kelly states that, “if we hire people with passionate servant’s hearts and empower them to do what’s right, they will consistently surprise, delight, and amaze our customers.”

When Bill and I fly with Southwest, we have always experienced that desire to keep the customers happy. It is more than propaganda; it really is what they believe and what they practice.


Try It, You’ll Like It

In any business, the goal is to have happy, repeat customers who will tell others about their good experiences and refer them to the business.

In my alter ego role as general manager of a printing company, it has always been my goal to keep the troops happy and let them know they are critical to the success of the business. I recognize all to well that it may be hard work to keep them happy. But the success of the business depends on it.

As an owner or manager, you can work at dealing with customers and seeing to their satisfaction, but in the real world most of those customer interactions are handled by your employees. If they feel comfortable and engaged, then it is more likely that the customer interaction will be positive. It is essential that employees have the right attitude to make that happen.

The Southwest Airlines rules are clear: Hire for attitude, train for skills, empower them, and encourage them to treat others as they wish to be treated.

Try that philosophy and you will be as surprised, delighted, and amazed as your customers.


Debra Thompson is president of TG & Associates, specializing in Human Resources for the Graphics Industries ( Contact her at 877-842-7762 or Her latest book, co-authored with Bill Greif, “No More Rotten Eggs – A Dozen Steps to Grade AA Talent Management”, will provide more guidelines and tools for finding top performers.