Absurdly Driven looks at the world of business with a skeptical eye and a firmly rooted tongue in cheek.
Delta Air Lines did something that appeared oddly kind last week.
Not odd just for an airline, but for any large company.
It used Labor Day to send employees a letter telling them they were getting a 4 percent raise.
Some might have sniggered that Labor Day was a beautifully cynical time for Delta to give raises when it fights brutally against its non-pilot employees unionizing.
Still, the general impression offered by both employees and customers is that Delta's operation is a little more thoughtful and successful than that of its rivals.
Why would that be?
Last week Delta's CFO Paul Jacobson spoke to the Cowen and Company 12th Annual Global Transportation Conference.
He offered a few clues as to what Delta does right -- and what, by implication, some of its rivals don't.
Most airlines have gone through at least one merger in relatively recent times.
Of course, one important post-merger necessity is to be financially sensible.
However, Jacobson talked about how they made considerable investments in the actual product.
The product, however, isn't just the machines and the efficiency of the operation.
It's the people and how they approach the customers.
Jacobson explained the new raises like this:
When you look at the performance of the Delta people, really the, kind of, the least we can do is announcing what we did last week of a 4 percent raise for our ground and flight attendant population, continuing the trend that we've been on as a reward and paying top-tier pay for top performance.
Here's another simple sentence from Jacobson, when it comes to Delta's view of its staff:
The core value proposition is: Am I satisfied coming to work, do I enjoy what I am doing, and am I getting paid for results?
Well, that certainly a positive way of talking to your employees and thinking about them.
It isn't just about money.
If you can get employees to appreciate and feel motivated by your approach to business -- and, by extension, to them -- they just might offer customers something a little superior.
Above all that, then, is the company culture. Jacobson observed:
Culture is not something you put on a memo and dictate to the organization that this will be our culture. Culture is ultimately what's born out of the values of the company. And as we focused on serving others and we focused on serving each other that's where the culture is born.
The result is that Delta's performance and the perception of customers continue to improve and those customers are actually prepared to pay more to fly Delta.
Having a positive culture not only encourages employees to give you a little more when times are difficult--it also encourages customers to be more forgiving when things go wrong.
Jacobson's words were emitted in the same week that one analyst described American as "the ugliest house on the block and it's a long-term fixer-upper."
That seems odd for an airline that has invested heavily in new planes, you might think. An airline that has a strong network, too.
Coincidentally, American Airlines also spoke to the same conference as Jacobson.
The airline's president, Robert Isom, offered his summation of the year so far:
We haven't run the best airline in our history.
Yet those who fly American surely see that the airline's staff don't seem so motivated.
American claimed two years ago that it wanted to make culture a competitive advantage.
Here's the issue.
Just a couple of years ago, American gave many of its employees surprise raises too.
The airline didn't, however, offer them anything that would lift the human spirit and bind them to a cause.
It didn't give employees some sort of perception that the airline aspires to superior service.
Instead, American's CEO last year offered the view that customer service really isn't all that important.
Worse, his airline began to stuff a ridiculous number of seats into its narrow-body planes.
This didn't merely make it more uncomfortable for passengers. It made it desperately uncomfortable for flight attendants.
Yet the airline appeared to pursue a policy -- noticed by both customers and employees -- of money being its sole driver.
Last year, Isom explained that American wasn't keen on improving anything for passengers unless it could make money out of that improvement.
Oddly, not so long ago, the airline also confessed it has no brand purpose.
Contrast that with Jacobson's description of Delta:
That brand momentum, that stickiness of getting customers attached to the Delta brand and using us for their travel is continuing to drive that momentum. That really is centered around the culture and the employees.
It's impossible not to get a sense of deep frustration from both customers and employees of American at what they see as an avoidable mess.
Here's an airline that put operational efficiency above everything and managed not to succeed even at that.
Still, though, Isom seems unaware of how important the people part of his airline is. Instead, this is how he frames winning customers back:
We've disappointed a lot of customers this summer. And I think our competitors have unduly benefited from our disruptions. And so I do think that we sent quite a bit of revenue to our customers -- or to our competitors this summer. That's something that we are going to put a halt to. For our customers, the good news is that because of the strong proposition that we have in terms of network, in terms of the product investment that we've made, Flagship Lounges and our loyalty programs, it is something that we have the capability of winning back.
Winning in business -- especially a service business -- isn't only about giving customers things.
It's about making them feel they want to be aligned with your brand.
Meanwhile Delta, the airline that professes more of a people-focused attitude, somehow manages to be more efficient too.
There's a lesson in there somewhere.