21. “Treat Employees Like Customers”

Have you ever experienced an organization where it seems that every employee enjoys what they do?

There aren’t many organizations like that—but the experience is so outstanding that it is memorable for years to come.  If you’ve ever flown Southwest Airlines, you are likely to have enjoyed such an experience.  The same goes if you have had a question answered by the Genius Bar at The Apple Store.

David Anderson at Signal vs. Noise writes on why service at those outstanding organizations rises above the rest, “When employees are trusted and treated like adults, they appreciate it just as much. The result: loyal employees who want to stick around forever.”

A culture is not created overnight.  It is built, and molded, and coddled over time.  And an important aspect that often gets overlooked in today’s go-go-go world is the benefit of having long-tenured employees remain in an organization’s workforce.  They carry the torch.  Whether or not they knowingly and explicitly do so, they pass an organization’s cultural values on to the new hires.

But we’ve all come across the bitter curmudgeon who has been on the job too long. Most people don’t start out that way—they break down over time as the system eats at their passion.  They are barely able to overcome their burnout on a daily basis. The problem is that they, too, are passing on individual values to new hires.

Both are cycles.  Both are difficult—one to get into, the other to get out of.

Mr. Anderson provides the example of Southwest Airlines founder Herb Kelleher:

Over the years, whenever reporters would ask him the secret to Southwest’s success, Mr. Kelleher had a stock response. “You have to treat your employees like customers,” he told Fortune in 2001. “When you treat them right, then they will treat your outside customers right. That has been a powerful competitive weapon for us.” As he stepped away from the company this week, his line didn’t change.

“We’ve never had layoffs,” he told me the day before the annual meeting, sitting on the couch of the single messiest executive office I’ve ever seen. “We could have made more money if we furloughed people. But we don’t do that. And we honor them constantly. Our people know that if they are sick, we will take care of them. If there are occasions or grief or joy, we will be there with them. They know that we value them as people, not just cogs in a machine…”

“There isn’t any customer satisfaction without employee satisfaction,” said Gordon Bethune, the former chief executive of Continental Airlines, and an old friend of Mr. Kelleher’s. “He recognized that good employee relations would affect the bottom line. He knew that having employees who wanted to do a good job would drive revenue and lower costs.”

Treating people right.  It is as simple as that.

Principle #21: Treating our people right is a fundamental philosophy of our own system.  Treating people with respect and honor is the foundation to building a culture that people want to be a part of long term.  That will translate into memorable and enjoyable experiences for our patients. Getting on the path is difficult.  But necessary.

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