James Governor's Monkchips

“You have to treat your employees like customers”

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When Ron Bieber twittered this article headline I thought that’s a smart idea. So I followed the tinyurl. Immediate confirmation of the quality of the link came from the fact it was at the signal vs. noise blog (note to any software company – emulate 37Signals three-legged approach for success in community and attention building).

Its a really nice story about Southwest Airlines founder Herbert D. Kelleher, who coined the phrase: “You have to treat your employees like customers”. What an awesome guy. When US pilots applaud an executive at a major airline you know he does things differently. What no strikes? 37Signals then quotes the NY Times on Kelleher and I will too. His ideas are inspirational.

Over the years, whenever reporters would ask him the secret to Southwest’s success, Mr. Kelleher had a stock response. “You have to treat your employees like customers,” he told Fortune in 2001. “When you treat them right, then they will treat your outside customers right. That has been a powerful competitive weapon for us.” As he stepped away from the company this week, his line didn’t change.

“We’ve never had layoffs,” he told me the day before the annual meeting, sitting on the couch of the single messiest executive office I’ve ever seen. “We could have made more money if we furloughed people. But we don’t do that. And we honor them constantly. Our people know that if they are sick, we will take care of them. If there are occasions or grief or joy, we will be there with them. They know that we value them as people, not just cogs in a machine…”

Basically that’s the kind of company that me and Stephen would like to build (which may well be why we’re so slow to hire people). Of course an analyst firm is not much like an airline, and our business very much is our people, but we put family and quality of life first. Our basic position is we’re here to help. You need time off, take it. Whatever you need we’re going to try our best to make it so. We won’t closely manage you, or make you feel like cattle, and occasionally you’ll have a delight-the-employee experience that binds you to us. And that’s why you do fantastic work for clients. Cote is example number one, but hopefully we can do just as good a job serving Tom, our man in Seville. If we do we’re in great shape.

Here is Southwest’s mission statement. Note the focus on employees, rather than “just” customers

We are committed to provide our Employees a stable work environment with equal opportunity for learning and personal growth. Creativity and innovation are encouraged for improving the effectiveness of Southwest Airlines. Above all, Employees will be provided the same concern, respect, and caring attitude within the organization that they are expected to share externally with every Southwest Customer.

Well done Herbert Kelleher for showing us all the way forward for a very 21st century management style… although you did it back in the 20th. Employees, just like customers, have a choice. Churn is expensive. Southwest is 37 years old tomorrow– Happy Birthday! 37Signals and 37 candles… a nice net serendipity.

It seems sometimes customers are a little under-dressed (somewhat hypocritical if the 1960s uniforms were anything to go by, but there you go…). Please leave the clothes on, guys…


  1. You pimping for new employees, James? If so talk to Stephen Collins (http://www.acidlabs.org) …

  2. […] info By codecurl Categories: CapeDeveloper and Workday You have to treat your employees like your customers. I think the same would be said in Workday. btw, we’re […]

  3. […] Google represents a challenging environment consisting of many very intelligent users who are using a diverse development environment. It is also an environment where if anyone tried to impede the developers’ work, these inventive employees would find ways to go around. Heavy handed policies will not work. A technical solution that helps developers get their work done is the only possible workable solution. Along this line, check out James Governor’s post, “You have to treat your employees like customers.” […]

  4. […] is really confluence of treating our employees like customers. What does this mean?  Engaged customers, the ones that give us recommendations that help us grow […]

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