In Most Places, This Story Wouldn’t Fly

Author: Linda J. Popky

Picture this scene.

A large group of passengers is gathered in an airport terminal, waiting breathlessly to hear what’s being announced at the podium. The speaker stops and the passengers erupt in spontaneous applause…for an airline employee!

This is neither a figment of my imagination nor a scene from a movie.

I actually watched this happen at a Southwest Airlines gate in the Minneapolis airport in June.

Southwest passenger Shawna Suckow had what could have been a personal disaster on a recent flight turn into a powerful, positive, loyalty-building experience.

Shawna is a meeting planner and author who several months ago walked off a Southwest flight leaving her laptop behind. This would be the laptop that had the only copy of the nearly completed manuscript for her new book.

By the time she realized what had happened, the plane couldn’t be accessed by the gate crew. But Southwest employee Chad Johnson went to bat for her, going out to the plane and searching high and low for the missing laptop, which had slid from under Shawna’s seat all the way to the back of the plane. When he finally came out with the errant laptop, Shawna tried to offer Chad a tip but he refused, saying he was just doing his job.

A great story, but it doesn’t end there.

Shawna was so moved by this example of outstanding customer service that she wrote about the encounter in an industry publication. That day in June when we crossed paths, she was at the airport not to board a plane but to thank Chad personally for his effort, with a copy of the magazine article for him and a thank you card.

When the gate agent heard the story, he called Chad up from the tarmac and handed the PA mike to Shawna. She excitedly told the story – culminating with everyone within earshot bursting into applause, every Southwest employee in sight beaming proudly, and poor Chad, caught totally unawares, looking shocked and a bit overwhelmed.

This story is unusual for several reasons:

  • We don’t hear these stories of outstanding customer service from airline employees very often.
  • It’s even more rare to hear of a passenger going out of their way to publicly thank an airline employee for outstanding service.
  • It’s hard to imagine a gate agent handing a PA mike over to a passenger on any airline other than Southwest. (Would this have ever happened on United or Delta?)
  • The positive impact from this incident touched hundreds of people who witnessed it and even more who are talking about it afterwards, like we are today.

From what I know of Southwest, I fully expect this story is already becoming part of the airline’s folklore – passed with pride to employees and management as an example of what Southwest stands for and the right way to treat the airline’s customers.

What is your organization doing to build the kind of impetus for people like Chad to go above and beyond for customers as a matter of course?

What are you doing to build the powerful brand that makes customers want to go out of their way to publicly acknowledge their helpfulness?

What are you doing to capture the stories and folklore that you’d like integrated into your organization’s culture?

In most organizations, this story just wouldn’t fly. What about in yours?

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