The air transport sector is one of those greatly affected by the coronavirus pandemic. There has been a significant decrease in passengers. Those who decide to fly encounter additional health protocols. Many have reported feeling anxious during long flights.
However, airlines need to see this as an opportunity to offer additional support for customers. Despite all of the new protocols, how can airlines deliver exceptional customer experience? How can flight personnel provide better service?
Sonya Lacore, Vice President for Inflight Operations for Southwest Airlines, talks about customer service during the pandemic. She also talks about her journey to becoming Vice President, the things she has learned along the way, and advice she wants to share with others.
Journey to the Top
Sonya has been with Southwest Airlines for almost 20 years. She began her career as a flight attendant and says that she “loved every minute” of it. However, after three years, she knew that she wanted to step up and take on a role of leadership within the company.
She shares that she fulfilled various leadership positions before becoming a VP. What remained constant was her desire to help others. Sonya explains that what guided her was a passion to help others succeed. This translated to a drive to provide excellent customer service. It also led to cultivating personal connections with employees.
Now that she is the VP of Inflight Operations, she remains passionate in inspiring 17,000 Southwest employees and 300 company leaders. Sonya wants all of them to succeed. She also remains driven to elevate the standard of inflight service.
A Company with Clear Values
Today, Southwest Airlines is one of the world’s largest low-cost carriers. Established in 1967, it rose to become one of America’s biggest airlines. Sonya says that a big part of the company’s success is due to its co-founder and former CEO, the late Herb Kelleher. He is well-known in the industry and was always regarded as being “larger than life.” Sonya feels grateful that she was able to get to know him on a personal level.
Today, the company is led by its new CEO, Gary Kelly. Sonya shares that what she admires the most about Gary is that he’s able to demonstrate his care for all employees. Gary is a good listener, and Sonya explains that this is reflective of the company’s values and has led to a great work environment.
Sonya acknowledges that Herb has left a valuable legacy. She says that Gary is building on that foundation and is leading the company well.
She also talks about the other values that the company stands for.
One is the drive to innovate. Another is ownership of responsibilities. Sonya shares a story that illustrates the two values in action. She says that Southwest had a uniform rollout program to revamp the uniforms they have used for two decades. Instead of hiring a designer, they decided to ask employees how they thought the uniforms should look. The employees knew what was best as they were the ones wearing the uniforms every day. Sonya shares that the designs submitted were excellent.
The employees showed creativity and a drive to innovate. They also took ownership of their roles.
Adapting to the Pandemic
As the head of Inflight Operations, Sonya had to make changes to provide the best service despite the new protocols. However, she was also aware that the company had to keep its fun-loving culture intact.
Sonya shares that both customers and employees have been anxious about COVID-19. This is because there is no precedent to what has happened. Southwest had to be agile in implementing necessary changes. Flight attendants needed to find new ways to connect with passengers. Other employees had to run operations remotely.
Despite the many changes, Sonya is proud that Southwest was able to keep its vibrant inflight culture. What was needed was to find creative ways for customers to enjoy the flights. This minimizes the fear and anxiety related to COVID.
Sonya shares that the company still celebrates passengers’ birthdays in-flight. Flight attendants still make crowns out of pretzel bags. Stir sticks are still given.
Additional safety rules are in place, but they don’t hinder Southwest from providing enjoyable in-flight service.
Lessons on Leadership
Sonya has learned many lessons during her 20 years in the industry. What was important to her was to understand her own brand of leadership. She needed to assess her strengths and capitalize on them.
She says that she felt no need to present herself as the smartest or the most strategic leader. She wanted to be compassionate. She wanted to be a good listener. She learned how to become fair, but firm.
To Sonya, figuring out the type of leader that she could become was the most important step. Two things led to this: Awareness and authenticity. She wanted to live in alignment with her truth. She didn’t want to act based on external demands or social pressure.
Sonya adds that in order to be authentic, one has to be willing to become vulnerable. She says that when she learned to become honest regarding her past experiences, her self-esteem improved. This led to having the courage to become even more vulnerable. This then led to an inner strength that became the foundation for her leadership.
When she learned to align her truth with her natural strengths, she began to see her work as not just a job. It was a cause.
The Meaning of Customer Service
Sonya shares some advice to those who want to succeed in airline services. She says that what she looks for in potential employees is the desire to help others. Many people want to become flight attendants because they want to travel. However, Sonya shares that passion for customer service and hospitality is necessary.
In airline services, the key to success is the drive to make others feel secure, comfortable, and welcome.
She also shares advice for women leaders. The first is to have passion. This leads to hard work and excellence. She wants to remind women leaders to establish their brand of leadership. She also shares that confidence and consistency will lead to recognition.
However, she also adds that passion should be balanced with goal-orientedness. She explains that leaders need to ensure that they cultivate a system to consistently achieve their goals. Passion is not enough.
Sonya also shares a lesson to the hospitality and service industry: Casual kindness. She explains that the foundation of customer service is kindness. This is needed more today, and customers crave it. Even after the pandemic, kindness would be vital as we move toward more automated processes. Human interaction should be rooted in kindness.
Her motto as a leader in the service industry is to always be “humble and kind.” Sonya wants to embody these traits for the rest of her life.