Customer Story

How to Celebrate Your Team with Travis Gelbrich Managing Director of Guest Experience and Loyalty at Alaska Airlines

AskNicely Team

CX insights and how to celebrate your team with Travis Gelbrich Managing Director of Guest Experience and Loyalty at Alaska Airlines

For over 90 years, Alaska Airlines has shown that excellent CX knows no bounds. From the ground to the sky, Alaska Airlines ensures a comforting, safe and high-quality experience for every customer. But how do they do it? Travis Gelbrich, Managing Director of Guest Experience and Loyalty, is here to give us the lowdown on what goes behind the scenes of Alaska Airlines' high-flying CX. 

A Caring Culture Starts from the Roots  

Values form the baseline of company culture. Alaska Airlines realized that right at the beginning, as Travic highlights: “Like a lot of great companies, [Alaska Airlines’] culture was formed at the beginning.” In 1932, when Alaska Airlines started with one lone aircraft, the company was founded on the need to serve remote Alaskan communities. Travis, himself, grew up in one of those communities, so he understood Alaska Airlines’ values and motivations. He sums it up by mentioning a book called “If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name” by Heather Lende, from Haines, Alaska. Travis elaborates that “Going above and beyond for people you know in the community, oftentimes they’re your family. It’s just naturally what you do. We’ve been so fortunate that that culture has carried on with the company. It’s really part of the culture we have today. It is something that we instill in our employees.”  

Maintaining Excellence: Alaska Airlines’ 5 Core Values 

It’s all well and good to start strong, but the trick is to keep that momentum going. Alaska Airlines uses frameworks and recognition programs to ensure that small-town hospitality is encouraged and celebrated. As the company grew in scale, so did the list of “prescriptive standards or policy.” Travis mentions that at some point the company realized “we [Alaska Airlines] were missing some of that magic.” So, to keep that magic alive and well daily, values were encouraged through a service framework. Alaska Airlines still has its policies which are mandatory for all airlines but Travis says the framework was created to tell the frontline,

“If you’re working within the framework, then you’re on the right path.”  

Five core values make up Alaska Airlines’ service framework: 

Safety: Travis emphasizes that “safety is paramount in our business.” When it comes to airlines, a company is responsible for customer safety between points A to B of their journey.  

Do the right thing: The “right thing” is dependent on the broader context. It can’t be enforced with strict rules but encouraged through rewarding actions that benefit the customers.    

Be kindhearted: Travis said this value aims to encourage frontline workers to ask themselves this question regarding customers, “How am I showing up for you and making your day better?”

Deliver on performance: Of course, Alaska Airlines is a business and needs to meet their financial and time-based goals. 

Be remarkable: Going above and beyond the call of duty is encouraged and supported at Alaska Airlines via the framework and unique recognition programs. 

This framework facilitates training conversations and improves frontline performance. Travis says when there are conversations about things that didn’t go right, “It’s not ‘you didn’t follow the process.’ It’s more about ‘tell me how you were working within the framework.’”

Remarkable Recognition

Recognition helps keep the cogs turning in Alaska Airlines' frontline teams. This happens on a daily or weekly basis through the Kudos program and annually through company-wide events like Beyond Service and Customer Service Legends. 

Keeping Track of Kudos: On a regular basis, the Kudos program uses customer surveys to highlight frontline employees who have gone beyond the call of duty. Recognition is gathered through surveys and by making the most of social media. 

Beyond Service: Frontline workers in the top 1% of kudos receivers are eligible to be Beyond Service receivers. Beyond Service is a yearly celebration, which Travis says is “like graduation.”  Top employees are recognized during this event and can even bring their families along. 

Customer Service Legends: The final form of the frontline worker is a Customer Service Legend. Travis says it’s “the highest honor of the company.” It’s hard to get nominated, at the bare minimum, an employee has to work at Alaska Airlines for ten years. The ceremony to recognize these individuals is a step up as well, where the CEO personally congratulates these high performers, followed by a great reception and a generous prize.  

How to Be a Customer-centered Company

For frontline employees to be customer-centered, companies need to have the same focus. Alaska Airlines keeps their customers in focus by delivering on their core commitments. Travis says that “people don’t buy airline tickets to sit in an aluminum tube for two hours with all their favorite strangers. They buy an airline ticket to get somewhere at a specific time, in a specific place and do that safely.”  

What are customers telling you…? 

Travis adds that beyond delivering on these commitments and expectations is listening to “what customers are telling us.” Formally that happens through surveys and social media mining and informally through asking frontline employees, so you can get insights straight from the ground floor. Well, in this case, the cabin floor. But the other side of listening is doing. Travis says that once feedback is collected, it needs to be followed up by actions which “show customers meaningfully that you care.”    

Alaska Airlines has seen first-hand the power of listening to the customer's voice. When they implemented premium class, which was between first class and main cabin class, customers would be upgraded to a middle seat. However, after collecting feedback, Alaska Airlines found that was their most unpopular seating option. So, they changed the way they do upgrades, avoiding the middle seat as much as possible and, in return, got more positive customer feedback. 

Customers Want Consistent Humanness

Insights from surveys and social media have found that customers want humanness. What’s more important than surprising and delighting customers is being consistent through personal touches. Travis says that at its core, “If you’re delivering something human. It can be delightful and surprising, but it can also be very consistent.” That consistency is delivered through remembering the little things and a customer’s preferences, whether that’s having a meal during a long flight or an undisturbed nap. Good recognition programs reinforce caring behaviors and encourage that consistent humanness. 

Up Next: Q&A with Stacy Armijo, the CXO of Amplify Credit Union. 

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AskNicely Team

AskNicely Team
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AskNicely Team

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