When I was 14, my very first job was working as a “professional ice cream scooper” at a local farm stand in my town of Salem, CT. The shop is owned by a family who has a farm down the street and the milk used to make the ice cream comes from the cows grazing in the fields. For three years I scooped ice cream and made thousands of milk shakes from March through September. I was always amazed how this little ice cream shop, which is kind of off the beaten path, is such a huge hit. Every summer, people from all over would come to get the “famous Salem Valley Farms ice cream.” Their success comes from the incredible homemade ice cream and the staff that tirelessly scoops in 90-degree weather. This shop knows what it is good at and continues to provide a high quality product to hungry customers to the best of its ability.
This experience makes me think about other, more widely known companies that turned their little known businesses into a success. Southwest Airlines is one of these businesses that come to mind. Excellent customer service and their overall business model have certainly made them a winner in the airline industry. In an era where other airline companies are in the news for raising prices, charging ridiculous fees, and providing terrible customer service, it seems as though Southwest rises above the rest.
Southwest Airlines: A star in the skies
Southwest Airlines originated in Texas in 1971, and began its operation with only three Boeing 737s that flew to three cities: Houston, Dallas and San Antonio. Now Southwest operates 548 planes that fly to 72 cities in America. Recently, the economy has hit the airline industry hard but there is only one company that hasn’t added extra charges, decreased daily flights or limited seat capacity. Southwest is the United States’ most successful, low-fare, high frequency, point-to-point carrier. How do they do it? They keep it simple and consistent.
The biggest area of success is customer service. Although Southwest Airlines has a “no thrills”, keep it simple philosophy, they are the leader in consumer satisfaction. Other airlines are updating their carriers with luxury seats, Blue Ray in-flight movies and hiring expensive marketing consultants to promote their flights as “the best around.” In spite of those great perks, all the airline “extras” cost you, well, extra. Southwest keeps it simple by focusing on the customer and in doing so, benefits in the long run. According to Consumer Reports, Southwest topped the magazine’s 2010-2011 airline satisfaction survey: “Southwest was the only airline to receive top marks for check-in ease and the service provided by its cabin crews. Passengers also gave the airline high grades for cabin cleanliness and baggage handling.” They recognize that providing great customer service is much more than just a job for the front lines or the call centers. Southwest has a holistic approach to putting the customer’s needs first and it seems as though this is something they do better than their competitors.
In May of 2011, Southwest officially acquired the Orlando-based airline, AirTran Airways (ranked as the number one low-cost carrier from 2007-2010 in the Airline Quality Rating Study). Similar to Southwest, AirTran offered a low-cost, high-quality product to passengers. The acquisition has significantly expanded the airline’s low-fare service, opened up opportunities to fly into close international cities and generated hundreds of millions in annual savings to consumers. Thus far, the merger has proved to be seamless. AirTran employees hold the same customer satisfaction beliefs as those who work for Southwest and now they are able to bring this satisfaction, as well as their famous reduced fares, to more passengers around the country.
Like the ice cream shop I spent my summers at, Southwest knows where they excel. Instead of expanding their practice to include more frills for more money, they simply grew their airline with others that believed in the same customer standards. Things can only go up for Southwest Airlines if they continue to focus on their proven, successful business model.
What can you do?
You might be thinking: “How can I make my company like Southwest Airlines?” There are many examples of companies that start small and turn into successful businesses. Consider, though, what the term “success” means to you and how it can be measured: revenue, profit, and customer satisfaction are a few benchmarks to think about. Market research is your best method in finding ways to innovate your business, develop new product concepts and measure company performance. Companies that start small and turn into successful businesses do so by having an innovative, unique approach. Consider contacting a brand innovation consultant for idea generation. Use companies like Southwest Airlines as a standard, while staying focused on the critical factors, and your company can turn into its own success story.
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