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Maximize Value October 14, 2015

Southwest’s Cheryl Hughey: Without a Heart, It’s Just a Machine

Senior Director of Culture Services, Southwest Airlines
Key Takeaway
High quality Customer Service internally spills over into our external Customer Service - Cheryl Hughey @SouthwestAir

Cheryl Hughey is the senior director of culture services for Southwest Airlines, leading a team responsible for the recognition, appreciation, and celebration of more than 47,000 employees. She is also heavily involved in supporting systemwide Culture initiatives, providing guidance to the Companywide Culture Committee and encouraging all employees to do whatever it takes to see the Southwest Culture excel. In this Q&A, and at the 2015 Oliver Wyman Health Innovation Summit, she shares lessons learned in driving great customer service and how they might resonate in healthcare as the industry adopts a more consumer-centric focus:

  • Southwest is known as a leader in providing excellent customer service—what do customers love about Southwest?
    Although reliability and low cost are key factors, it really boils down to ONE thing—really 47,000—our Employees! It's how our Employees provide the utmost care, respect, and concern for each other and for our Customers. It's how we make them feel. As we say, “Without a heart, it's just a machine”!
  • What do Southwest employees do differently that creates a better customer experience?
    Our focus on our Employees is constant... constant... constant. With an intense, constant focus to provide high quality Customer Service internally, this spills over into our external Customer Service. When Employees have a sense of pride and ownership, they will go above and beyond to get the job done and to do so in a warm and friendly manner. In our most recent Employee survey, over 80% of Employees who responded were satisfied with their jobs and felt empowered to exceed their Customers’ expectations. We value authenticity. We encourage our Employees to be themselves and to tap into their unique talents and gifts. This could be injecting humor into their announcements; giving back in their communities; practicing random acts of kindness; demonstrating courage and quick thinking in moments of crises; and more. All of these unique gifts and talents are shared with our Customers each and every day and generate more than 27,000 Customer compliments annually, producing more than 68,000 individual Employee commendations.    
  • What have been the biggest challenges in motivating employees? 
    Managing through the fast pace of change and maintaining a climate of trust within our organization. While our Employees are proud and committed, there is frustration. Frustration with understanding the “why” behind the changes and trying to embrace how these changes could impact our Culture and our Company. “It’s not the same ole Southwest” is something we hear from our Employees, and we are constantly addressing that perception. Although our policies and processes will change, our values and how we treat each other should not. That was true of Southwest in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, and that’s still true today.
  • What can healthcare learn from your experience? 
    Being mindful that Culture is not a fleeting program or a box you can check off—culture is how you do things; it makes up what your Brand is, and it starts from the top. The support, trust, and actions of Senior Leadership shape and preserve the Culture. Having resources and programs dedicated to support the needs and engagement of Employees is critical for any organization’s success.

Photo: Southwest Airlines

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