THE BLOG
07/16/2013 04:50 pm ET Updated Sep 08, 2013

Why Southwest Is Beating the Competition

When was the last time an airline employee gave you enthusiastic service?

Compare and contrast these two stories to see how senior leadership affects employee commitment:

Last year, I lost my wallet on a late night Delta airlines flight. I stumbled off the plane in a bleary-eyed stupor, and didn't realize I'd left it in my seat until I got home.

I called Delta, after an endless voicemail loop, I finally spoke to a human being who told me, "We don't look for things people leave on the plane. You have to fill out a report. If someone finds it, it will get processed through Lost and Found, and they'll call you."

But wait, I explained, this was not a coat or umbrella, this was my wallet, with my ID and all my credit cards. Could someone just go look, just once?

"No, that's not our policy."

In a panic, I drove to the airport, thinking surely if I talked to Delta in person I could persuade them.

Again, I was politely told, "not our policy."

Did I mention that I am a very frequent Delta flyer?

It didn't matter. The employees were polite, but they made it clear, it was not their policy to make any special effort to help me.

Forty-eight hours later, they called, per their policy, and I got my wallet back. Proving that Delta employees are honest and efficient, but not necessarily driven by anything other than policy.

Compare my "not our policy" experience with how Southwest Airlines responded when my colleague Shawna Suckow left her computer on a flight.

Suckow, an author and hospitality industry expert, was struggling with a cold and in a decongestant fog when she inadvertently left her laptop on the plane. In an article for MidWestMeetings.com, she writes, "Imagine the panic of arriving home late in the evening, and wondering why your briefcase is a lot lighter than it should be. Now double the panic. I hadn't backed up my files in a long time, and I've been finalizing my second book."

Ugh.

Suckow says, "I drove back to the airport, told my sad-sack tale to Southwest Airlines, and they radioed a baggage worker on the tarmac. True to what I'd expect from Southwest, the worker dropped what he was doing, found a cart to drive him to the hangar, hooked up a ramp of stairs, and combed the airplane for my laptop...and found it."

She says, "I tried to give my new hero -- Chad Johnson -- a tip, but he declined twice, saying simply, "Thank you ma'am, but it's my job."

No mention of policy or a wait and see attitude, instead the Southwest employees assume their job is to go the extra mile for the customer.

Why did Suckow get a different response from Southwest than I got from Delta? It's simple - leadership.

Delta employees are more polite than their surly counterparts at U.S. Airways. But most of the major airlines have made it clear to employees and customers: The primary purpose of the airline is to make money. They dress it up with slogans about service, but senior leadership words and actions make it painfully clear: The P&L is the single most important thing.

Southwest had different goals from the beginning, it wasn't being the biggest or the most profitable, it was about the customer experience.

Southwest leaders are clear that their noble purpose is to "democratize the skies," to give everyone the chance to fly, and to make it great.

The way leaders talk about the business and customers matters. If your primary purpose is to make money, you create policies that reduce labor. But when you put policy and profit over customers, your employees disengage and your customers eventually figure you out.

However if like Southwest, your noble purpose is to serve your customers, your baggage handlers don't think twice about combing a plane for a lost laptop.

Southwest Airlines has had 41 years of consecutive profits.

How many other airlines can say that?

Noble purpose first, profits will follow.

(c) Lisa Earle McLeod

Lisa Earle McLeod is a sales leadership consultant and bestselling author of Selling with Noble Purpose: How to Drive Revenue and Do Work That Makes You Proud. Companies like Apple, Kimberly-Clark and Pfizer hire her firm to help them create passionate, purpose-driven sales organizations.

A sought after keynote speaker and thought leader, she has appeared on Good Morning America and The Today Show. She writes sales leadership commentary for Forbes.com and has been featured in Fortune and the Wall Street Journal.

Visit www.McLeodandMore.com for McLeod's Sales Management tips and videos.