WestJet co-founder shares the keys to success at OTA conference

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TORONTO, Ont. – Packs, COWs, WOWs and FOPs – these are all just another way to describe airline passengers.

Don Bell, the retired co-founder of WestJet, spoke to conference attendees at the 2013 Ontario Trucking Association meeting and shed light on building the optimal environment for success.

“Labels change how we perceive things,” Bell said, conveying the importance of how we treat the people that drive a business.

At another airline, Bell recalled, staff would refer to travellers as packs, COWs, WOWs and FOPs. Packs were the regular travellers.

“The pack in seat 11A wants something to drink.”

COWs and WOWs were the travellers in need of some assistance – a COW, carry-on-wheelchair, a person that must be wheeled onto the plane and carried into their seat. A WOW was a walk-on-wheelchair, or simply, a traveller that had some mobility issues, but could make it into their own seat.

“The COW in 21C is cold and wants a blanket.”

A FOP, Bell said, was an old person, but wondered about each letter in the acronym.
“What does the ‘F’ stand for,” Bell asked a former employee of the offending airline, and before he got his answer, he had already figured it out.

“We had to change the perception of airlines in Canada,” said Bell. “We needed to exceed expectations.”

One of the first changes WestJet knew it had to implement was the way the employees and customers were treated.

At many airlines, Bell said, flight attendants were given a high rate of pay, but they weren’t necessarily happy at work and it was reflected in the way the customer was treated.

“We treated our employees like number one,” Bell said. “We paid them less, but we offered profit shares that WestJet matched at 100%.”

Through its online customer service, Bell said the company would consistently get asked how it managed to hire staff that seemed happy all the time?

“We beat it into them,” Bell joked, but added, “Hire people with great attitudes.”

According to Bell, when your staff – or people as they are referred to at WestJet – are happy, it will translate into a better business.

“Customers see that your (staff) are happy,” Bell said. “You can’t hide that.”

Bell encouraged those in high-management positions to spend a day on the job so it can be clearly understood what goes on at each level.

“Don’t do stuff that is good for the business, but bad for the people,” Bell said.

Find a good model and copy it, Bell added.

Bell, back in 1996, helped find a way to best treat their people, which in turn made the experience of doing business with guests an enjoyable one.

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