How Southwest Airlines empowers their frontline to improve customer experience

The pandemic hit travel and hospitality hard: many businesses have lost between 70-90% of revenue in the last year. It’s never been more clear that the organizations that will thrive in the future are the ones who differentiate on experience. Ginger Hardage, former SVP of Culture and Communications at Southwest Airlines, knows a thing or two about that.

Flying plane on solid colour background

Hardage spent 25 years leading a team of 150 people responsible for building and sustaining Southwest Airlines’ legendary culture and communications enterprise. She knows what it takes to encourage people to bring their whole selves to work every day—and what it takes to make customers feel special. Recently, Ginger joined our own JD Dillon on The 80 Percent Podcast to discuss how Southwest Airlines built a culture of going above and beyond from the inside out.

Learn how you can empower your frontline to go above and beyond with our Ultimate Guide to Frontline Training.  

Get your frontline doing the right things at the right times (even when the unexpected happens).

You can’t expect everything that might happen on the job. Factors out of your control — weather delays, technical issues and luggage complications — can contribute to derailing an otherwise positive customer journey. So, how do you encourage customer-facing employees to turn disappointment into engaging, fun and brand-defining moments? And why will they go that extra mile for your company? 

Here are some key insights Hardage shared:

1. Go beyond checklists and strict frameworks.

Build up employee confidence to turn an unplanned situation around by giving your frontline permission to do whatever’s necessary to make these situations right.

At Southwest, this looks like giving frontline employees freedom within a framework. By outlining essential tasks, they know what they need to do and when. This leaves room for employees to discover what they can do outside of the framework, with freedom to use their unique personalities to deliver exceptional service. 

The idea of freedom within a framework extends to frontline roles in every industry. Top performers will stand out because they have the right-fit support  to perform beyond the checklist.

2. Hire and train based on superpowers and company values.

Drill down on your particular organizational values and make sure that new hires fit in with your overall goals. Hardage says: ”If you’re bringing the right kind of people in, your job is going to be so much easier.” 

Employees should be encouraged to use the personality traits you hired them for. Bonus: having this freedom also helps them create, deliver and provide great customer service. Move beyond long rule books and hire the people that will uphold your core company values.

Some employees have superpowers of humor, and some are great at interacting with people. Moments of enablement, when employees can access their personal superpowers, are the moments that go viral and build positive brand reputation. Memorable experiences don’t come from times employees go by the checklist and refuse to bend to a specific customer need. They come from times employees feel free and motivated to make an extra effort. 

3. Show appreciation and support to build employee confidence.

When employees feel supported, they’re going to feel safer at work. Leading by example in the workplace means having empathy for employees at every level and understanding the various stresses they may be under. It also means showing them with your actions how well you’re keeping them safe. 

Setting your frontline up for success with right-fit training and communications does more than give them the knowledge and skills they need to do their jobs. It shows them your respect and gives them the confidence to create great customer experiences — even when things go wrong.

Great companies recognize the connection between people and stories, and leverage this connection with their customers and their employees. The CEO of Southwest Airlines, Gary Kelly, ends his company-wide messages with a shoutout to an employee. By sharing employee success stories from customers or other employees, you can recognize your frontline for their accomplishments while also reinforcing important values.

Regardless of your industry, one thing always rings true: customer and employee experiences are deeply connected and investing in your employees can have a significant positive impact on your brand reputation. You can help your organization see the results you want by building a team that goes beyond the basics to delight customers at every turn. 

To hear more insights from Southwest Airlines on everything from creating and sustaining cultures to the impact of organizations as storytellers, listen to Ginger and JD’s full chat on The 80 Percent podcast.

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