Southwest Airlines took out a full-page newspaper ad to honor the late company founder, Herb Kelleher, who passed away in January. The first line of text read as follows:

Dear Herb, thanks for always remembering our names.

Kelleher was credited for turning a company into a family, and family members know each other by their first names. Understand the power of using a person's first name and you'll have discovered a free, simple, and powerfully effective leadership tool to build stronger relationships with peers, employees, and customers.

When I asked a longtime pilot for Southwest what he recalled most about Kelleher, he said, "Until we grew to about 2,000 employees, he seemed to know everyone's name. When he saw me in the airport, he would call me by my first name and even he remembered the names of my wife and family members. We loved him."

Kelleher wasn't the only one to understand the power of first names. Brands like Apple and Lululemon are also on board.

The Lululemon Chalkboard

I recently accompanied one of my daughters into a Lululemon to pick out some workout clothes. Within seconds an employee introduced himself to us and asked for my daughter's first name.

"Lela," my daughter replied.

"Lela. That's a nice name," said the employee. "What brings you in today?" By repeating the name immediately, it helps the employee to remember it.

Once my daughter had found several outfits to try on, the employee wrote her name in chalk on the door of the dressing room. When he introduced her to another employee, he used "Lela" once again. The second employee also referred to my daughter by her first name.

As we walked out, my daughter turned to me and said, "Well, that was great service." That's the power of a first name. If the employees had simply pointed us to the right products, it would have qualified as service. By using first names several times in the conversation, it became great service and a memorable experience.

The Apple Store Greeting

While I was doing the research for one of my books, The Apple Experience, I learned that when you walk into an Apple store, a greeter says hello. He or she asks for your first name and types it into an iPad. What you don't see is that person also making a note of what you're wearing to make it easier for the specialist to spot you in the store.

Once the specialist finds you, he or she approaches and greets you by name. For example, "Hi, Carmine. I see you're here to check out the new MacBook Pro. I'd love to help you..." By using your first name--and repeating it in the conversation--the specialist has made an instant connection with you.

Neuroscientists have discovered that when it comes to first names, what works in the real world is confirmed in the lab.

In the 1950s, scientist Colin Cherry uncovered an effect he called the cocktail party phenomena. Participants in his experiments wore headsets that had two different conversations going on simultaneously, one in each ear. The task was to focus on one conversation. People were reasonably good at listening as long as they were told ahead of time which conversation to focus on. They couldn't recall the other conversation--with one exception. Whenever their first name was spoken, they shifted their attention.

Their first name was the one word that cut through the noise. 

A more recent study using brain scans concluded that hearing your first name will activate parts of your brain different from those activated by hearing the names of other people. "Adults never tire of hearing their name," according to the scientists. 

One of the most effective ways to remember first names is by following a three-step process. First, ask for a first name. Second, repeat the name out loud early in the conversation. Third, mentally associate the name with another person or word that will help you create a mental picture of the name.

Sometimes, the best motivational tools are simple and free. Practice getting first names right and you'll see your business relationships grow stronger.

Published on: Feb 21, 2019
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