Up Front: The Culture of a Company
March 1, 2009
My friend Mark Breslin often refers to the culture of the trades and how they need to develop a better culture within their own industry. The culture within a group shapes the group’s image, for better or worse. The word “culture” comes from the Latin Colere, meaning to cultivate. The word is difficult to define: the task of directing a culture, almost impossible and yet culture can change everything. There are national cultures and even corporate cultures.
We can look at airlines for a culture and what each has done to fix or ruin their companies. As fuel prices climbed in mid-2008, the airlines figured all sorts of ways to recoup the costs-the extra fees for luggage, food and other incidentals. I checked a bag with no carry on and was charged an “extra bag fee.” Do they expect people to travel with no luggage? If you make a change in your flight plan, you will pay; oh will you pay. While they recoup some cost, it will cost them. A national television talk show host related a story for the audience. She was booking a trip online and accidentally hit the wrong button for the departure date. She immediately called the service desk and explained the situation. She was informed that a $250 change fee was now due. She explained the booking was only 30 seconds old. No matter, rules are rules. She was so annoyed, she shared the story with the nation. She must have been concerned about a lawsuit as she did not mention the airline but I am sure all her friends know about it.
I recently switched to Southwest and had to make a change in my travel plans. I dreaded the inventible run-around and extra fees. To my shock, I had no problem and no extra charge. It has made me look at the culture of Southwest Airlines.
I was flying over the holiday season on Southwest. A couple of us were trying to get on an earlier flight and the door was about to close. The ticket agent initially said no problem and that he could get us on that flight. Unfortunately, the computer was not so cooperative and it refused to print out a ticket; the plane was closing up. The ticket agent realized that we were not going to make it and made a “customer friendly” decision.
“Get on the plane” he said. “I will get the ticket printed and scan it for you after you board.”
Now that was smart customer service. What allowed this agent to act this way? He must surely have broken some company rules. The Southwest employee took a gamble to please a couple of customers; where did he get that initiative and why would he take the chance? I believe it was a culture within the company.
If you fly Southwest regularly, you will notice the flight attendants make the same speech as other airlines about seat belts, no smoking, exits, etc. However, I have been on many of its flights where the flight crew actually will have a little fun with the scripted routine. How can they do this? Other airlines do not act this way and that is exactly the point. It has to be the culture the company has created from within to allow the employees to work hard, have fun and think outside the box. Think what you would want sitting in that seat. I am only guessing but I believe they put a premium on the “culture” of the company.
I switched to Southwest because of stories I had heard from friends with similar experiences. A review of airline ratings with Consumer Reports confirms my suspicions that Southwest is a top ranked airline with customer satisfaction.
MISSING THE MARK
You can’t force a “culture” upon the employees. That is forcing customer service and it just does not work. Have you been to Home Depot lately? Try it, you will be asked by every employee you walk by “How are you today?” “Can I help you find what you’re looking for?” It will happen every 20 feet to the point that you’ll want to scream. Yes, it happened before but only occasionally. Now it seems it is every single employee and I know they have been directed to do this from the higher-ups. I do not believe Home Depot had “that” kind of a customer or “culture” problem. I have been to Home Depot and gotten not-so-good advice. I have also stood by and heard the Home Depot employees explain how to patch stucco or drywall and the advice was well intended but incorrect. The executives sent the memo to change the culture, unfortunately, the wrong culture.
Look at your group, company or associates. What is the culture in your company?