Each beloved company makes key decisions to mark its place in the universe with customers.
Colleen Barrett, President Emeritus of Southwest Airlines, says her company grows through heart, encouragement, and accountability. Southwest Airlines knew from the beginning that it needed to march to the beat of a different drummer to stand out in the crowded airline industry. “We wanted to be a household word,” she told me, explaining Southwest’s origins. “We wanted to become America’s airline.”
In 1971 when Southwest initiated service, the “Americans” flying were mostly men. Southwest has never been afraid of putting its own “real” stamp on the flying experience. So while other stewardesses (they were not called flight attendants back then) wore conservative suits, Southwest stewardesses wore outfits that included hot pants and go-go boots to appeal to those passengers who were flying. “They ate up those hot pants and go-go boots!” Barrett said. As Southwest expanded its service to a broader audience, the hot pants got the boot. Personality, compassion, customer service, and whimsy took their place. Southwest began bonding with customers, all customers, from its heart.
Customers love Southwest for their candor and no-nonsense style when it comes to the business of running an airline. Customers are its biggest defenders and keepers of the Southwest Airlines way of doing business.
Barrett told me a story that proves this point. Herb Kelleher, Southwest Airline’s founder, and she were in the Albuquerque, New Mexico, airport lounge area when a Southwest flight was boarding. Kelleher appeared to be just your average “Joe” waiting for his flight. As Barrett tells it, “An elderly woman went up to Herb and said, ‘Young man, you better get your butt in gear—this airline goes when it says it is going to!’” She got a hug and a thank-you from both Barrett and Kelleher.
42 years after Southwest began flying; they are thriving when other airlines are clinging to survival. Southwest has never purported to be all things to all people, but for those customers who gravitate to its brand of experience and humanity—a no-frills airline that will get you where you want to go but won’t deliver food beyond peanuts, or attitude beyond warmth and sometimes good-natured sarcasm—the bond is strong.
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