If the Employees Don't Own It, Clients Don't Get It

I am not a million-mile flyer, but over the years I have been on a lot of flights and have learned things that are directly applicable in managing my company.

June 30, 2009
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       Dave Bryan

Contributing Editor

I am not a million-mile flyer, but over the years I have been on a lot of flights and have learned things that are directly applicable in managing my company. Unfortunately, with the exception of one airline, most of what I have learned falls under the what-not-to-do category.

Late last year I was on an airport parking shuttle bus and, being a friendly guy, struck up a conversation with an employee from a major airline. I asked her about a new policy her employer had just announced — a fee for all checked bags — and whether there had been much backlash from customers.

Well, that was all it took. The floodgates burst open and out came a torrent of company bashing that I would have only expected from someone who just got fired. The person launched into a diatribe about how foolish management is and how they never listen to the employees. This went on for a while and concluded with her recounting a complaint she lodged about the cleanliness of the airline's food trays and the management's response that 200 (yes, 200!) such complaints were required before they could take action.

Now here is the key. She had been with this airline for a long time and, until relatively recently, had felt company loyalty and a sense of ownership. (I know this because I asked.) Now she and many of her coworkers have become “victims” of management. No longer do they look for ways to improve and do better. Instead, they spend time complaining to each other and now to paying customers. Is it any wonder this airline's on-time arrivals are poor, customer satisfaction is low and profit does not exist?

Now contrast this with Southwest Airlines. I am not trying to endorse them, but the company is a great example of how to do it right. I actually go out of my way to fly them, because their employees want me to be on their plane, and they let me know it every time.


You can’t program people to be caring if they don’t care. ... They are only as effective as their belief in the company.

Southwest turns planes faster than anyone because all the employees pull together. There are no prima donnas; everyone is willing to pitch in. Not only that, but they enlist my help. They ask me to take my trash with me, and — guess what — I do it. They make irreverent jokes during boarding and safety announcements. They keep my attention, ensure my safety and make me laugh during a part of the flight that other airlines drone through with the creativity of a single-cell organism.

Southwest employees greet me, talk with me and thank me with sincerity. If I have a connecting flight, they make sure to tell me where it will be. On some flights they play games. On some longer flights they grab kids and have them distribute the snacks. None of this stuff is rocket science or expensive, but it makes a difference and it can't be faked.

Here is the takeaway: Southwest is an employee-owned company. That is to say there is a palpable difference in how its people perform because they feel what they do is important to you, which is important to Southwest, which ultimately is important to them. You can't program people to be caring if they don't care. You can give them guidelines and rules and train them, but they are only as effective as their belief in the company. I am not suggesting you become an employee-owned company, although that idea has merit. I am suggesting you apply the same principals in your company as Southwest does in theirs.

Start with some different thinking from the top, and then ask your employees to use some different thinking too. Then listen — really listen — to their thoughts, the good and the bad.

So, what thinking will make a difference in your organization? What message will you deliver to your people? When your people OWN client satisfaction your clients will actually experience it.

Author Information
Dave Bryan, CGR, CAPS, is the president and CEO of Blackdog design/build/remodel in Salem, N.H. He is also a facilitator for Remodelers Advantage. Contact him at dbryan@blackdogbuilders.com.

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