Herb Kelleher, founder of Southwest Airlines. If the staff are happy, the customers are happy.

So you think you’ve got insurmountable problems with staff…staff who want everything for nothing, staff who don’t turn up, staff who ‘can’t sell’, staff who won’t work Wednesdays because their sister’s boyfriend’s band plays Tuesday nights?

And you have how many staff…two? Three? Maybe even a handful? Try keeping literally thousands of staff happy…so happy, in fact, they fall over themselves to get to work, refuse to leave, stay on for ten, twenty, thirty years!

Herb Kelleher had that ‘problem’. For those interested in how other business owners became – and remained – successful (and I can’t for the life of me imagine why anybody in business wouldn’t be interested in that) here’s a brief background, and some words of wisdom, from the man who founded Southwest Airlines more than 40 years ago, and turned it into one of the world’s most successful.

Southwest Airlines ad from 1981. No, you probably wouldn’t get away with it these days.

And that, in an industry that’s generated a litany of failures for decades.

Herb Kelleher founded Southwest Airlines in the late 1960s, concentrating on a few short-haul routes around Texas. For a few years it was a struggle. But Kelleher persisted, found ways to beat the established rivals on price, on service, on value-adds. And he’d pull almost any stunt to get the airline publicity. For several years the flight attendants’ uniform was hot pants – remember them? Try getting away with that in the oh-so-politically-correct 21st century.

But the thing that made Kelleher so successful wasn’t his eye for marketing, or his ‘business acumen’, or his ability with balance sheets.

It was his dedication to his staff – and by default, his customers.

Here are a few of the many pearls of business wisdom from one of the titans of the customer service industry:

“If the employees come first, then they’re happy…. A motivated employee treats the customer well. The customer is happy so they keep coming back, which pleases the shareholders. It’s not one of the enduring green mysteries of all time, it is just the way it works.”

“A company is stronger if it is bound by love rather than by fear.”

“We will hire someone with less experience, less education, and less expertise, than someone who has more of those things and has a rotten attitude. Because we can train people. We can teach people how to lead. We can teach people how to provide customer service. But we can’t change their DNA.”

“The core of our success. That’s the most difficult thing for a competitor to imitate. They can buy all the physical things. The things you can’t buy are dedication, devotion, loyalty—the feeling that you are participating in a crusade.”

“You can’t really be disciplined in what you do unless you are humble and open-minded. Humility breeds open-mindedness—and really, what we try to do is establish a clear and simple set of values that we understand. That simplifies things; that expedites things. It enables the extreme discipline I mentioned in describing our strategy. When an issue comes up, we don’t say we’re going to study it for two and a half years. We just say, ‘Southwest Airlines doesn’t do that. Maybe somebody else does, but we don’t.’ It greatly facilitates the operation of the company.”

And my favourite:

“We have a strategic plan. It’s called doing things.”