West Jet: A True Example of Customer-Centric Culture

West Jet: A True Example of Customer-Centric Culture

For the record, Gregg Saretsky does not begin every phone call with a joke.


That might come as a some surprise given the fact that Saretsky is the President and CEO of WestJet, the airline that made a name for itself as a passenger-friendly carrier thanks in part to the jokes its flight attendants tell at the start of each flight.

Even without the jokes, it is clear Saretsky is a true disciple of the WestJet business mandate, which is to be the most “caring” air carrier in the world. In a wide-ranging interview with Knightsbridge onPeople, Saretsky said the jokes are just one example of how WestJet attempts to put an added element of care into all aspects of its operations. “To succeed, you cannot just pay lip service to the idea of putting the customer first,” said Saretsky. “It has to show up in everything that you do.”

Customer Service as a Differentiating Factor
WestJet is not shy about proclaiming that its approach to customer service is its greatest differentiator, and perhaps the key to its remarkable success. In its 2011 Q2 financial results, released in early August, WestJet outperformed expectations and posted a $26-million profit, nearly three times what it earned a year earlier. This result was achieved despite the fact that fuel prices had risen by almost 30 per cent year over year.

“We and our competitors fly roughly the same jets and we charge roughly the same fares,” said Saretsky. “Some in our industry would argue that air transportation has become a commodity business. We disagree, and I think that’s what makes us different and what makes people come back to us. I think when someone is thinking about flying, if we have provided them with a really special customer experience, I think we’ll get the first shot at making that next sale.”

It may seem like an almost impossible task to instill and maintain a bold, customer-centric culture like this across a highly dispersed company with nearly 9,000 employees. WestJet, however, has stuck rigidly to a set of principles that guide both the relationship between employees and the company’s leaders, and the relationship between the airline and its customers.

“WestJet has been able to demonstrate very clearly that there is a direct link between the way leaders treat their employees, and how those employees ultimately treat their customers,” said Vince Molinaro, Managing Director of Leadership Solutions for Knightsbridge Human Capital Solutions. “Far too many organizations operate on the belief that you can have one set of principles and standards for employees, and another completely different set for customers. WestJet is demonstrating the power of alignment between employee and customer.”

The Role of Senior Leadership 
First, and perhaps most importantly, WestJet ensures there is a relationship between leaders and employees. Saretsky said that over the years, as the airline has grown, senior leadership has insisted on getting out to meet as many WestJet employees in person as possible. Sometimes, this will come from greeting a new crop of employees. “I often go in and welcome new recruits myself,” he said. “I have people tell me that they have worked for many other companies for many years and they never once got to see the CEO. I think it’s important that people do get to see the CEO.”

Senior leaders also play a prominent role in the wide array of internal recognition and reward programs at WestJet. These programs not only underline the principles of the airline’s “culture of caring,” but reward those who best embody that culture, Saretsky said.

Molinaro agreed that reward and recognition programs are important building blocks for a culture of authenticity. “It doesn’t have to be financial,” Molinaro said. “Our experience is that leaders who use recognition and kudos to connect to their employees create a relationship that helps people buy-in to the culture. If there is no recognition or kudos, employees may doubt the authenticity of the culture. And that will impact on how customers are treated.”

Employees Invested in a Superior Customer Experience
In terms of recognition and reward, WestJet has the advantage of being an employee-owned company with a generous employee share purchase (ESP) plan. Saretsky said each year, employees have the option of diverting up to 20 per cent of their wages to the purchase of WestJet shares, with an added bonus of up to 20 per cent matching shares from the company. The ESP has been so successful in terms of employee uptake that it has become a major theme in WestJet’s advertising campaigns. Saretsky said WestJet wants its passengers to know that the airline’s employees are also owners, and thus care more about the level of service.

The ESP is used as a springboard for two major events each year where profit-sharing cheques are handed in person to WestJet employees. Saretsky said the airline has always insisted on making these cheque presentations in person, turning the event into a massive celebration of the company’s success. “We create these moments specifically to connect our people to the company,” said Saretsky.

However, the events and promotions do not stop there. WestJet holds 200 various employee events each year, from Christmas parties to the “Kudos Corner,” an on-line program that allows passengers and co-workers to acknowledge superb customer service by a WestJetter, Saretsky said. The testimonials left at Kudos Corner are used to hand out awards to employees at public events to celebrate those who have gone above and beyond the call of duty.

Several times each year, WestJet also offers a program called “Culture Connect,” where groups of 250 employees from across the country are flown into Calgary to sit down with each other and brainstorm ways of “making the company and the culture stronger,” he said.

At all company events, WestJet shows motivational videos that celebrate the culture of caring. “WestJet prides itself on our videos and we try to ensure that when they’re shown, there isn’t a dry eye in the house,” Saretsky said. “We want people to make an emotional connection to the company.”

Saretsky conceded that these programs are expensive and that there are no clear guidelines for measuring the ROI. WestJet does attempt to establish metrics through detailed passenger surveys and other research methods. But in the end, the company continues with its investment in the culture of caring because it is simply the best way of ensuring everyone is on the same page.

“I can tell you that we have some very interesting conversations with our accountants about how much money we’re spending on these events,” Saretsky said. “But in the end, even they have to admit that there is a special magic created by all these programs.”

The Right People
It is a huge task, even with all these programs, to ensure that everyone is buying into the culture of caring, Saretsky said. WestJet performs stringent screening of everyone applying to work at WestJet. However, the airline’s experience has been that the culture itself is the best guarantee of consistency and acceptance.

“We’re a pretty touchy-feely, huggy-friendly place,” he said. “If you’re a cynic who’s just not buying into that, you’re going to be pretty uncomfortable here. The culture does a pretty good job of ejecting the people who don’t fit.”

Molinaro said that WestJet has shown that strong cultures are self-sustaining. “A strong culture will build a brand that attracts people who are already in sync with an organization’s values. It becomes self-perpetuating, and when you get it right it is the ultimate differentiator for a company like WestJet.”

WestJet’s plans include continued growth, both in terms of routes and employees, but Saretsky said it does not intend on changing any of its approaches to spreading and maintaining the culture of caring. And if that requires WestJet employees to continue telling corny jokes, then so be it.

“I know there are times when a tired business person on one of our flights really doesn’t want to hear another bad joke,” Saretsky said. “But we know there are 135 others on the plane who love it because it’s different. And we’re never going to stop being different.”

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