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David FullerThere was a time when you could take a WestJet flight and walk away from the experience wanting more.

Ticketing staff, flight attendants and even pilots seemed like they really enjoyed working there. There were jokes on the flights, gags and laughter. That sense of fun made you want to fly with them. It was a competitive advantage they had over their arch rival Air Canada.

But something has changed.

Recently I took three flights with WestJet and came into contact with roughly 30 WestJet employees. Yes, the staff were professional and seemed competent. However, of those staff, flight attendants and crew members, over the period of six hours, I was only able to observe three who were even close to smiling or laughing.

I’m not sure what’s different, but something has obviously changed in the culture over the years and it’s noticeable.

So why does culture change? How does a once fun-loving company become dour and ordinary?

As I sat on my flights, I pondered that. Then I picked up the WestJet inflight magazine. I read the article by Ed Sims, WestJet’s president and CEO. Sims writes in the August 2018 on-flight magazine that WestJet was founded in 1996 to change the air industry in Canada by offering “rock bottom airfares;” that WestJet and its sidekick Swoop are only able to continue to offer these low fares by “keeping costs low.” He explains that this is why you will see pilots and crew cleaning the planes and grooming the aircraft.

Tom Peters, a business guru of the 1980s and ’90s, was famous for saying, “What gets measured gets done.” However, in leadership there’s also the factor that what gets measured gets prioritized.

If as leaders we’re always focused on low cost, we will get low cost. But at what cost?

If all we care about is keeping our expenses low, then as this message filters through our organizations, our employees will focus on reducing all expenses, including energy and effort. When we value minimization over people, morale begins to suffer because everyone knows that nothing is rewarded except saving money.

When our sole focus as an organization is providing our product or service at the lowest possible price in order to dominate the marketplace, we become a failure. We’re assuming that our customers are only concerned about prices.

You can’t argue that once WestJet emerged into the Canadian marketplace, travel prices dropped. Most Canadians are thankful for that competition. But what really differentiates WestJet from its competitors?

As a fairly regular flyer, with 20-plus flights a year, it’s true I’m looking for a good price. But it seems that there are rarely substantial price differences between the airlines.

If prices are the same in any market, consumers make decisions based on other factors. The biggest determining factor for many consumers is relationship and experience.

When WestJet entered the airline marketplace, they differentiated themselves as the fun-loving young company and Air Canada was the stodgy old folks.

After discussing this with some of my peers, I concluded that you’re probably more likely to get better service travelling with Air Canada than in years past. Their culture has definitely changed to become more customer focused.

Great culture starts with leadership. If we want our employees to model certain behaviours, practices or attitudes, then we need to set those as a priority.

It’s great to have an underlying value of low cost if that’s what our customers desire. But there’s a difference between low price and high value. If all we strive to be is low priced, we’re setting ourselves up to fail when someone figures out how to deliver that saving better than we can. Low prices have no loyalty.

If WestJet fails to focus on fun over profits, I predict we’ll see even fewer smiles coming from their staff (and shareholders) in the future.

Troy Media columnist David Fuller, MBA, is a certified professional business coach and author who helps business leaders ensure that their companies are successful. David is author of the book Profit Yourself Healthy.

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