MCLEOD: Why the 'cheap' airline is beating the big boys

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

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 spoke to someone 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.

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

In an article for MidWestMeetings.com, Suckow, an author and hospitality industry expert who was struggling with a cold and in a decongestant fog when she inadvertently left her laptop 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."


Suckow writes, "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 -- 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 US Airways. But most of the major airlines have made it clear to their employees that their primary purpose is to make money. They dress it up with slogans about service, but leadership actions make it 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 have never strayed from their noble purpose, to "democratize the skies," to give everyone the chance to fly, and to make it great.

Leadership matters. When you put policy and profit over customers, your employees disengage and your customers eventually figure you out.

Lisa Earle McLeod is the author of several books, including "Selling with Noble Purpose: How to Drive Revenue and Do Work That Makes You Proud."