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Excellence in Real Life

What’s the difference when it comes to getting from point A to point B?

Last week I saw excellence in action. When I arrived at the airport at 6:00 AM for a 7:00 AM flight to Minneapolis, I realized I didn’t have my boarding pass. I worried a bit because the security line was long and the wait to get a boarding pass could take some time. At the top of the escalator, my concern was validated.

There were large crowds in front of USAIR and Southwest, and I was flying Southwest. As I moved toward the line, increasingly concerned about time, I noticed something. In contrast to the group in front of the USAIR counter, the Southwest group was animated, vocal and moving. I looked up and noticed that the wall behind the counter was wrapped in pink wrapping paper and populated with cut out hearts with messages on them: “Luv is in the air”; “we luv flying”; “We luv luggage”. I smiled and took my place in line. In no time at all, I was at the counter, happily greeted by John. When the kiosk was unable to locate my reservation, John stepped out from behind the counter and offered to help. He immediately noticed that my credit card had the III suffix, but my reservation did not. “Happens all the time”, he said. “I’ll take care of it.” In less than a minute, I was sent on my way with a warm voice, “have a great day and enjoy your trip Joe.” “Thanks John, same to you.”

It was early, and I still had to get through security, but I felt good. So good that I decided to stand and observe each of the counters for a moment. Only Southwest and USAIR had crowds. Only Southwest was decorated. The USAIR crowd was subdued, Southwest was alive. United and another airline (I cannot remember which) had no passengers. “Southwest gets it”, I thought to myself. Gets what, you ask? They “get” how to treat their customers as if they matter. Their commitment to customers is real and authentic. (Two weeks ago I had a maddening experience with United where the gate agent refused to book me on a flight on which there were empty seats because he had to close the doors in order to avoid him taking a delay. He made my wife and I wait three hours for the next flight because he didn’t want to explain to his boss why the doors didn’t close on time. At the Customer Service counter I was told to log on to United’s website and file my complaint there. It was surreal.

Every airline does the same thing. They all face the same challenges of managing costs, dealing with weather, flight delays and cancellations, unpredictable passengers and all the rest. They all have to line you up to board the plane and hope that your carry-on luggage fits. The playing field is level, and there is no difference whatsoever in the product each delivers – a flight from point A to point B. So what’s the difference? My guess is the pursuit of excellence. Southwest understands the big picture, and it truly cares about its customers. They know how to run a good airline, make their passengers feel valued, and have fun along the way. (The flight attendants pre-flight instructions were original and funny.)

Pursuing excellence is not easy. It requires vision, patience, a fanatic focus on mission and values, discipline, and hard work. But the payoff in terms of employee engagement, customer loyalty and financial results is well worth the effort.

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