Q: How do you train new employees?

A: Perez: Once they are hired, we send them a link to an online orientation. The interactive website covers the history and goals of Southwest, benefits, privileges, and common airport terms. We found that when we would go over benefits on the first day and hand them a stack of paperwork, they were overwhelmed. This way, they look at what benefit package is best for them as a family.

Vandergrift: Sometime on the first day or within the first few weeks, they come to our headquarters for a “Freedom, LUV and You” (FLY) class. During the day-long class we talk about [the company’s] values and what makes us unique. We take them on a tour of headquarters and we have a senior leader speak to the class. Each employee also receives a kit with a T-shirt and a lanyard for their badge. The kit is sponsored by a current employee, who includes a note. We encourage the new hire to get in touch with the sponsor.

Q: Do you have training for existing employees?


A: Vandergrift: We have a university where we offer new leadership training on appraisals, coaching, crucial conversations, and communication. We also offer personal development classes on topics like public speaking, the Myers-Briggs personality assessment, and computer software.

Q: How do you communicate Southwest’s customer service standards?

A: Vandergrift: I’ve heard our president emeritus say that our first customer is our employee. You can’t treat employees badly and then expect their treatment of customers to be positive. We tell our employees that we want them to make service genuine and unique to themselves. How they deliver service and go above and beyond has to be from their heart. If we have a corporate-approved saying, it feels scripted. We give them freedom to make those choices, and as long as they are leaning toward the customer, they won’t get in trouble.

Q: What are some examples of employees going above and beyond?

A: Vandergrift: Our rapping flight attendant had to say certain things in his announcement to meet government regulations. But the rest was his own touch. We have numerous examples of employees helping customers who are dealing with a death in the family. One employee saw that a customer was really distraught, so he drove him to his destination.

Perez: We had one employee who had a nervous customer who was flying to have a heart transplant. That customer service agent got [the customer’s phone] number and followed up with the family to make sure she was OK.

We also have packets of letters from customers that go to each location, which highlight the remarkable things that employees have done for customers. With our new Kick Tail program we have little cards that an employee can quickly fill out and send in to recognize another employee. Those cards are put in a pool, and we have drawings for prizes.

Vandergrift: We are careful to not put a financial reward on the cards because we could lose the sincerity of the gesture.

Q: How do you train employees to handle difficult situations?

A: Vandergrift: When they are dealing with things that are out of their control like the weather or airport screening, we teach them to still take ownership. They can say, “We are so sorry you have been inconvenienced,” and empathize and keep the customer involved and keep communication open and ongoing. If something does go wrong, we encourage proactive customer service where we send a letter or e-mail or package to a customer explaining what happened and why. We make sure we overcompensate and communicate before the customer says something to us.

Perez: We get more commendations on that proactive stance than on other things. The hard part is when people don’t complain and you don’t know that something happened to make them not fly us again.

This is a longer version of an article that appeared in the Fall 2009 issue of UPSCALE REMODELING.