Sales Moves

All airlines are the same — except for their people

October 11, 2013
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As you may know, I’m a regular flyer — about 200 flights a year. The flights are mostly on major airlines, but because I’m more interested in flying non-stop than earning travel miles or points, I take whatever airline is most convenient for my schedule.

This past Friday, I found myself flying Alaska Airlines from Atlanta, Ga., to Portland, Ore. 

There are only a few Alaska Airlines gates — and they’re hard to find — in Delta-dominant Atlanta Hartsfield Airport. 

FYI: Alaska is part of the same SkyTeam co-op airline alliance as Delta. That’s where the similarity ends.

The Alaska ticket agents were amazingly friendly. Actually, they were smiling, laughing, engaging, helpful and friendly. I hope airline employees at your airport act that way!

Note well: Yes, there’s an occasional ticket agent or two who are friendly and helpful, and there are some friendly, helpful agents in Charlotte, N.C., whom I’ve known for more than a decade. But these Alaska Airlines people were amazing.

I engaged them in a few minutes of lighthearted conversation and asked them what the hiring criterion was. 

That’s when the startling admission came: “We’re actually Delta employees who were hand-picked and retrained.”

Hand-picked and retrained. What does that tell you?

Wait a minute! Retrained? It’s the same computer system and the same baggage criteria. Just cross out “Delta” and substitute “Alaska,” right?

“We were trained to greet and treat customers in a different way,” said one of the agents. “You know — smile, chat, be friendly, thank customers as you look them in the eye, and not use certain unfriendly words and phrases like ‘policy’ and ‘all set.’” 

Wow! There’s a concept.

Yes, I boarded the plane happily and on time. Yes, the flight attendants matched the ticket agents’ and the gate agents’ friendliness. In-flight service — all five hours of it — was excellent. 

NOTE: These days, flight attendants emphasize they are there for “your safety” and never say the word “service,” let alone the word “friendly.”

These flight attendants were gently professional and friendly; They were not, for instance, assertively demanding — almost rude — when telling me and other passengers to “turn off electronic devices.” 

I fell asleep between ordering and receiving food. Next thing I knew, a flight attendant was gently rubbing the side of my arm, and smiling as she helped me put my food in place. Classic.

Well, that would have been the end of the story had I not spent the weekend with a 10-year Alaska Airlines employee. I told him about my experience, and he just smiled.

I asked him what makes Alaska Airlines different. 

Here is his eye-opening response about the big things Alaska does better than other airlines:

  • It starts before training. It’s all about who they hire. It’s about finding the BEST people. They have some process of pre-identifying the right people.
  • No test at time of hiring. Interviews are human-to-human. They ask questions and go with gut feelings.
  • They select people they believe will be hard workers, people who they believe will go beyond what’s expected —“North” of what’s expected.
  • They select people they believe have a natural inclination to take ownership. People who are caring and friendly.
  • They select passionate people who love what they do.
  • They don’t just train front-line employees; they train all employees. They have found that front-line people are buoyed by internal employees if attitudes are consistently positive throughout the company.

Why is this eye opening? Because it’s not fancy! It’s nothing new. It’s not complicated. It’s natural. It’s not costly. It’s human. 

You know the rest right? Alaska Airlines’ leadership and management is “by example,” not “by the book.” All employees feel valued and are happy to serve. And customers love it. It’s humanized and natural. It’s caring people serving traveling people in need. 

Well, why don’t all airlines do this? Long list of reasons too numerous and way too negative to mention here. This is a business lesson, not an airline reprimand. 

Hard questions:

What’s your culture?

How consistent is attitude throughout your corporate environment?

How is that affecting your morale?

And more important, how is that affecting your customers?

Jeffrey Gitomer’s website, gitomer.com, has information about training and seminars, or email him personally at salesman@gitomer.com.

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