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Radically Personal S1 E1

Bringing humanity back to air travel

JetBlue Co-Founder Frankie Littleford has been in the airline industry her entire career, and has reinvented the way an airline treats its customers. In this episode, Frankie explains how the “crazy” idea of establishing 100% remote call centers changed everything for the company, and how empowering agents is more important than managing them.

"Our mission is to inspire humanity, and what we’ve really recognized and focused on is that it starts with your people."

Frankie Littleford
JetBlue Co-Founder

Joseph A.    Welcome to the Radically Personal podcast, where the people behind the most beloved brands share how they put the customer at the heart of everything they do. I’m Joseph Ansanelli, CEO of Gladly. On today’s episode I sit down with Frankie Littleford, one of the founders of JetBlue. We talk about how JetBlue’s mission to bring humanity back to air travel boils down to how you make people feel.

Frankie    We have always thought of ourselves as a customer service company that just happens to fly airplanes.

Joseph A.   And how building a great customer support team requires building a great culture.

Frankie    We know how we want to take care of customers, but you have to take a step back and say, if this is how we’re going to take care of customers, then it starts with how we take care of our crew members.

Joseph A.    This is radically personal.

Frankie    I have been in the airline industry, so the jet fuel has been in my blood, for over 30 years. I started at Eastern Airlines and stayed until the very last day. And then I had a couple of other stents. One at Morris Air. Morris was sold to Southwest Airlines. And then David Neeleman, our founder and first CEO, asked me about helping him start an airline, which I thought was the craziest idea ever. I think you start like a car lot or like a bagel shop, but I don’t think you start an airline.

Joseph A.    You know one of the things that probably people don’t know about you if you actually call 1-800-JETBLUE, that’s your voice. So I was hoping maybe we could hear that.

Frankie    Of course. Yes.

Joseph A.    Ladies and gentlemen, please dial your phones. 1-800-JetBlue.

Frankie    Thank you for calling JetBlue. This call may be recorded for quality assurance or training purposes. Para Espanol, por favor, marque numero nueve.

Joseph A.    Is that all your Spanish?

Frankie    That’s all my Spanish right there.

Joseph A.   That’s good. That’s great. You were there at the very beginning. There is the founding, when you decided on the name of the airline to be JetBlue, you were tasked with figuring out how to build a customer support team. What was the thinking in those days? Because you did some things, and this was back in 1999, that were kind of unheard of actually.

Frankie    Right. So the thinking was really let’s use innovation and technology to really propel us where we want to go. We have always thought of ourselves as a customer service company that just happens to fly airplanes. The customer’s always been at the heart of everything that we do at JetBlue. And I’ll share that David’s, you know, one of his first ideas was I want 100% work from home. So all of our customer support crew members, I want them to work from home.

Frankie    We had in a previous life at Morris Air, had some people who worked from home. But when he said 100% I thought that was completely crazy and I thought to myself, okay, we’ll give this a try. Pretty sure it’s not going to work. I was wrong. It worked 100% and I would never have a traditional call center again.

Joseph A.    So today for example, how many people approximately? And all work from home?

Frankie   Yes. So approximately 2,800 who work full time from home in two locations, Orlando and Salt Lake.

Joseph A.    So today for example, when a new crew member starts, how do you interview for the right set of people? But also how do you get them on board? How do you get them to understand the JetBlue…? What’s that process like?

Frankie    Sure. So I think, first question, how do we interview and hire for that type of person? We really look for people who like to be around other people or who like to deal with other people even if it’s over the phone. And so we hire for customer service, customer service background, and we’ll train the skill set. Obviously with a pilot-

Joseph A.    You mean like how to do flight booking, that kind of stuff.

Frankie    Exactly. Yes, exactly. Pilots are going to come with their certification already.

Joseph A.    Yeah. They know how to fly a plane before you hire them?

Frankie   Right. Yes.

Joseph A.    That’s a good sign.

Frankie    Yeah. That’s a good sign. But the other-

Joseph A.    Just to interrupt, I did get a chance to fly in the simulator. I took off from JFK. I buzzed the Statue of Liberty, and I landed successfully.

Frankie   Nice. That’s awesome.

Joseph A.    Yeah, I know.

Frankie    That’s really good.

Joseph A.    So I’m taking the fight tomorrow. No, I’m just kidding.

Frankie    Have you had flight lessons?

Joseph A.    Just Microsoft Flight Simulator when I was a kid.

Frankie    That’s great.

Joseph A.    Anyway, sorry.

Frankie    So I think we hire those who have previous customer service experience or you can tell that it’s something that they enjoy. We’ll train the skill.

Joseph A.    So you interview for the cultural values. You train the skill. Okay. So then they get the job. They accept. What’s that onboarding process for them?

Frankie    Sure. Yeah. So, the onboarding process. Everyone, before they can start their first day in training, you go through orientation. And orientation takes place either in Orlando or in Salt Lake for every single person who’s hired at JetBlue.

Joseph A.    So not just the support people like the airport operations team, pilots, include crew members…

Frankie    Right. Revenue management, finance, tech ops, IT, everyone. And there are probably six or seven modules. And it’s our senior leadership team who presents. Whether our CEO, Robin Hayes, will present and share the brief history of JetBlue. We have another finance module, but these are senior leaders in the company. And really our message is we want you to see how important you are to us. That it’s our senior executives who want to spend time with you and who want to share expectations and also what what life will be like at JetBlue.

Joseph A.    You know, one of the things that you and I talked a lot about is culture. And it’s not normally a thing you think about when you’re thinking about customer support, per se. People are always talking about handle times and response times, but you have spent a lot of time thinking and talking about the importance and value of culture. JetBlue has an amazing culture overall, but also just thinking about the culture in the customer support team. When you were in those early days and then in to today, what were those key cultural values? How do you imbue them in people? How do you get people on board? To go from zero to 2,800 customer support crew members, there’s a big investment to establish that. Maybe share a little bit about that.

Frankie    Sure. As we were building the airline, putting the airline together, our mission was to bring humanity back to air travel. And we have since evolved. Our mission is to inspire humanity. And what we’ve really recognized and focused on is it starts with your people. It starts with-

Joseph A.    Internal. The JetBlue team.

Frankie    Right. The JetBlue team. And we know how we want to take care of customers, but you have to take a step back and say, if this is how we’re going to take care of customers, then it starts with how we take care of our crew members and making sure that we provide the right tools, that we empower them. You spend more time at work, really, than you do with your family. And even if you’re working from home, you’re still working. And you’re still focused and dedicated to that career. And so it started out focusing on our crew members and continues to be focusing on our crew members.

Joseph A.    One of the benefits, obviously, of investing in culture is you really… One of them, what I’ve witnessed, is how much you want to empower the team to do the right thing for your customers. And you once shared the story about how crew members, what decisions they can and can’t make. I think it’s a very common thing. We hear this a lot and we meet with companies where they’re asking us about like, “Well, how do they get approvals to do certain things and take care of the customer?” How do change that model of how you let the customer support crew members decide what to do for your customers? What was going on, and what was the decision, and what’d you learn from that?

Frankie    Sure. So one of the things that we do to keep in touch with how our how our crew members feel just about working at JetBlue, we do surveys. One of the things that seem to continually bubble up was this feeling of I’m not empowered to make decisions. Everybody wants to help a customer as quickly as they can. So we really looked at the empowerment question and asked ourselves “What would happen if we told crew members you have decision making authority to help a customer and to provide what they need up to a certain level?” It really changed how crew members felt about their job as well as how they felt about the contribution that they were making. And so crew members are able to, using good judgment, keeping the brand in mind and making the right decision, they can waive fees if needed. They can also-

Joseph A.    Without getting a manager to approve it.

Frankie    Right. Without… Yes.

Joseph A.    You’re on the phone, the customer’s upset or whatever, they now can just on the spot decide and say, “Hey, I’m going to do the right thing”.

Frankie    Exactly. And it really has changed that relationship between crew members and customers because each of us know that when you are dealing with something where you need some extra assistance, nobody wants to tell their story over and over to somebody else up the chain of-

Joseph A.    Right. Let me get you to my manager and see if I can approve that. Okay. I’m like stuck in the middle of nowhere and like, or I had a horrible experience and you’re going to put me on hold. Right.

Frankie    Right. And now you have to tell your story again if they transfer the call.

Joseph A.    Right.

Frankie    Right. And so just being able to take care of, in a one on one interaction, nobody else involved, get that customer taken care of and on their way, it has done so much for that relationship and really how the crew member feels about the job that they’re doing and how the customer feels about the company that they’re doing business with.

Joseph A.    Yeah. One of the things I love about JetBlue is you have all of these great plays on blue and jet. Jetting edge, all that kind of stuff. And there was this one phrase which I heard early on in our partnership, “blue juice”. I assumed it was some sort of drink concoction that you guys were serving. What’s the blue juice?

Frankie    Blue juice is that shot of enthusiasm that, you know, each of us, it doesn’t matter where you work, you have highs and you have lows. Being with each other and sharing the good and the bad, every once in a while everybody needs a shot of blue juice. And so whether it’s through training, whether it’s through interacting with one another, but it’s something that I think just helps us stay connected and helps us stay on mission to inspire humanity and to have relationships with each other that otherwise wouldn’t have existed.

Joseph A.    We obviously started working together now, we first met a little over three years ago. When we first met, we talked a lot about wanting to drive more innovation with support. And one of the big things that we shared together as a goal is really this idea of putting humanity back, bringing humanity back to air travel and inspiring humanity, which starts with this idea about people, which is such a big part of what we wanted to do from a software standpoint. What’s the impact been now that any crew member today who’s doing customer support lives inside of Gladly where they see who this person is, what’s been the value?

Frankie    I think the value has been the relationship is an ongoing relationship if it’s a customer who travels with us frequently. It’s not in a creepy way. It’s not, “Oh, we noticed you took your tomatoes off of your salad the last time that you flew, so we’re bringing you a salad without tomatoes.” Are you recording me? I didn’t fill out a comment card. But it’s more along the lines of “We saw that you emailed, we saw that you had a phone call with us a month ago, and now you’re chatting with us via the app”, and that crew member being able to inform themselves so that, again, like we said before, the customer’s not having to tell their story over and over.

Frankie    And so you really are creating more of a relationship. There is a connection. Time is what none of us have enough of. Right? And so to be able to take care of whatever you need to take care of with a company that you’re working with and be on your way and feel like you don’t have to call back to check up on things or you don’t have to text in to check up on things, it’s hard to put a price on that.

Joseph A.    Yeah, that’s true. One of the other things that we had as a goal together was, we liked to describe it as this idea of meeting customers wherever they are. Now, you obviously are dealing with customers and passengers that are all over the place. But engaging with them, obviously you do it in the airport, you’re doing it on the in flight, but historically a majority of your support contact had been phone.

Frankie    Right.

Joseph A.   And together in our partnership, we’ve really transformed that to today 20 to 25% of the daily customer support volume is now happening on messaging, chat, SMS, et cetera. What’s that transformation been like both internally and externally?

Frankie    It’s been so interesting because I recall maybe 18 months ago to two years ago attending a leadership conference and the person on stage holding their cell phone up and basically saying, do you all know we are the last generation that will hold our cell phone to our ear and talk.

Joseph A.    And talk into it. Right.

Frankie    Right? Then asking the question by a show of hands, who doesn’t do that with their cell phone any longer? And all these hands shot up in the air. You know teachers who used to say, it’s not like you’re going to be carrying around a calculator in your back pocket all day long. You have to learn math. Well, now we carry a calculator around in our back pocket all day long because we have a calculator at the tips of our fingers with a phone.

Frankie    I think the way that it is changed, obviously, the way that we communicate with each other has completely changed. What has been so great to witness is the way that you and I communicate with our loved ones. You can start out a conversation on the phone, you can move to a text, all of a sudden something’s happening in Facebook and now you’re in Facebook Messenger and then you come back to a text. That is now been provided. We’re able to do that with our customers. And I think it’s really changing that relationship between companies and customers because, again, it’s a single thread of how you’re communicating, but it’s in a new way as far as how you deal with businesses.

Joseph A.    Yeah. And sort of thinking about customer support. The first time you and I met, I remember walking into the room and you were at this table and at the front of the table was the J.D. Power Award for best customer support, which you’ve won lots of.

Frankie    More than a dozen.

Joseph A.    Yeah. More than a dozen. Who’s counting?

Frankie    Yeah, no.

Joseph A.    You obviously have done a great job with customer support. What was driving this decision to work with a new company like Gladly and challenged the status quo?

Frankie    The thinking really was we want to stay ahead of the competition. What business isn’t competitive? And we want to make sure that we’re offering something new and different that customers want. And in order to stay, I think, ahead of the curve, it means looking at new products, new services that nobody else is using and doing, and taking a chance on that.

Frankie    It reminds me of a story, and this is going to sound so funny. A conversation that I had with one of our managers about 10 years ago, and she said to me, “You know, Frankie, we need a social media team because Twitter is going to become part of the conversation and we’re going to have to have an entire team.” And I just said, “You’re crazy”. No, I did. I have apologized to her, I bet, at least 20 times. What company doesn’t have a social media team. Right? And so I think as you’re building a business, as you’re continuing to run a business, yes, you’re running the operation, but you’re also really working on your strategy and how you can leapfrog the competition. And you have to be thinking about those things that sound almost absurd today, but tomorrow, if you haven’t pursued them, you’re left in the dust.

Joseph A.    Right. I like to say to people, “You have a choice today when you’re thinking about it. You can either choose the thing that everyone’s been doing for the last 10 years or you can choose the thing that everyone’s going to be doing in the next 10”

Frankie    Exactly.

Joseph A.    And you obviously did the latter which we feel very lucky, too.

Frankie    Yes. We feel very lucky as well.

Joseph A.    So the name of the podcast is this idea of Radically Personal. Is there an example or a story of how you and your team, crew members, have delivered on this idea of making something radically personal that you could share?

Frankie    Yes. I have several of these, but just the one that comes to mind was about a week ago we had a customer who had been visiting in Orlando, visiting the theme parks, had some candy from Harry Potter World. They wanted to know if they could bring Harry Potter candy. And our crew member who was answering knew to ask you bringing chocolate frogs or fizzling rocks? And they proceeded to have this conversation about the different kinds of Harry Potter candy.

Joseph A.    Was it a kid or was it an adult?

Frankie    They were both adults.

Joseph A.    They were? That’s pretty funny.

Frankie    Yeah. In fact, our crew members said the candy will, of course, have to be screened by TSA, but nothing that an invisibility cloak can’t help with, and ended up with mischief managed. It’s fun to see crew members interject their personality and make a connection with a customer where those two people would have never been talking about anything Harry Potter related in this lifetime. But that conversation provided the platform for them be able to have that opportunity.

Joseph A.    That’s so great. That’s a good story.

Joseph A.   Thank you for listening to this episode of Radically Personal. I’m Joseph Ansanelli, CEO of Gladly. We feel so very fortunate to partner with customers like JetBlue and leaders like Frankie. Radically personal customer service is only possible when support teams, or in the case of JetBlue, their crew members, are empowered to use their judgment to address the individual needs of each customer. When this happens, the results take care of themselves. If you enjoyed the podcast, please be sure to subscribe and rate the podcast on your favorite platform or visit us at radicallypersonal.com. We’ll see you next time.