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Member Q&A: 2K's Ima Somers on How Southwest Airlines Made Her a Better CX Leader

By Emily Cowan posted 01-17-2019 12:00 AM

The recent passing of Southwest Airlines’ larger-than-life co-founder Herb Kelleher has generated a heartfelt outpouring of remembrances -- the kind usually reserved for rockstars and heads of state. Among those with a few stories to tell is community member @Ima Somers, who worked her way up the ranks at Southwest from counter agent to customer service supervisor. We asked Ima, now Director of Customer Service at 2K to describe her early experiences at Southwest, how they shaped her subsequent career in CX, and why a company’s internal culture of personality, spirit, and fun can actually improve customer experience.

Execs In The Know: Ima, you’re originally from the Netherlands and Southwest was one of your first employers in the U.S. How did the company culture compare to what you were used to seeing at home?

Ima Somers: My parents owned their own business and one of the things my mom instilled in me as a business owner was that, “If you take care of our people your people will take care of you.” To me that was a very natural and common-sense thing, but when I moved to the U.S. I found that a lot of corporations here tended to put profits over people. So I applied for a customer service job at Southwest Airlines and worked for four years at Baltimore Washington Airport. I really feel like I found my family there. The corporate culture at Southwest was all about the employees. As Herb was once quoted as saying, “We happen to be in the airline business but really we’re all about our people.”

This was the first company I encountered that my childhood vision of how they should operate.I started as a ticket counter agent and gate agent. In my fourth year I became a customer service supervisor, so I was dealing with oversold flights, pulling people off the plane who had had too much to drink and rebooking them, finding a wedding dress in lost luggage. Pretty much everything you can imagine that comes with running an airline.

EITK: Southwest grew very big, very fast. How did the company maintain its employee focus while bringing on so many new hires?

Ima: I’d say there were five key elements to Southwest establishing and maintaining a strong brand culture.

    1. Shared narrative. First and foremost, Herb was a storyteller. When I joined the company in 1999 you would always hear stories about Herb and how the company pulled together in tough times. For example, during the oil crisis when fuel costs were high enough to put Southwest out of business, employees chipped in to keep the company afloat. Or the time Herb didn’t want to go to court over a disputed slogan because he didn’t want to waste the money on lawyers, so he settled the dispute out of court with an arm wrestling match. These were the kinds of stories I heard throughout the company about Southwest and its CEO and yes, Herb was larger than life.
    2. Smart hiring. Aside from building a strong culture of share experience, recruiting the right people is key. The Southwest mentality for hiring front-line agents and flight attendants centered on attitude, because that’s the one thing managers can’t teach. They were looking for people who are outgoing, who aren’t afraid to take responsibility, who are self-starters, and who can jump in and roll up their sleeves to get things done.
    3. Careful training. Once recruited, we agents were sent to Dallas headquarters for six weeks of training. We were really able to get that feel for how Southwest operates. And they were very strict! I remember if I was one second late I would be considered tardy, because “we were in the business of being on time.”
    4. Meaningful benefits. Southwest made an effort to find out what was important to its employees and, for us, it was about flexibility. Like many airline employees I could travel anywhere within the system on stand-by, but Southwest gave me tickets that my family and friends could use to actually make reservations. This was especially appreciated during peak travel times like Thanksgiving and Christmas - the busiest days of the year! Finally, Southwest allowed us to swap shifts very easily so we’d buddy up; if I was working the morning shift I’d find someone on the evening shift and we’d take turns working double shifts one week and taking the next week off.
    5. Self-determination. We were given a lot of empowerment as agents. I remember as a new agent having my supervisor tell me, “You can never do wrong by doing the right thing.” If I had a customer run up to my counter completely distraught because they had to travel last-minute for a family funeral, I could issue them a bereavement fare and even run with them to make sure they made their flight. I would have to leave my position, but since I was doing the right thing it wasn’t at all frowned on. In fact, we were encouraged to find creative ways to accommodate and help the customer.

    EITK: It isn’t too often that managers encourage their customer-service employees to go off-script.

    Ima: That’s why you hear all these Southwest stories about funny flight attendants going through the security information but being themselves and making it their own. I remember one Christmas Eve when I another gate agent and I started a Christmas carol sing-off between our customers. No one told us, “No you can’t do that!” I mean, what would you rather be doing as you waiting for your flight on Christmas Eve? The best part was when the plane pulled up and the caroling customers at the gate sang to the new arrivals as they deplaned.

    This was all part of the storytelling culture at Southwest - that feeling, that emotion that reflected the spirit of the company and its employees.

    EITK: How did your early customer-service experience at Southwest inform your work in later CX roles?

    Ima: I’ve really focused first and foremost on hiring for attitude - a willingness to be patient, to listen to people, and to want to help. I’m hiring my agents to take care of my customers, I’m hiring my supervisors to take care of my agents, I’m hiring my managers to take care of my supervisors. And I’m here to take care of my managers. That’s how it goes from me all the way down to the front line, and how the front line comes all the way back to me.

    As far as authenticity, when we talk about voice and culture, I like to tell our agents to imagine sitting at a bar next to a friend who is having trouble with a game. I tell them to think about how they would talk to their friend through it. 

    I also think that it’s possible to over-automate interactions with customers. I have a rule that all of my agents need to personalize their answers to customers. We also have style guides that give suggestions to our agents how to talk differently to our customers depending on which brand they service. To make that human connection you have to have brand recognition and an understanding of the product in the mind of the customer.

    My main takeaway from Herb Kelleher and Southwest? Focus on the employee first, so they can take better care of your customers.


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