To fully appreciate the challenges facing JetBlue as it hires more employees and expands to more locations around the country, you have to venture beyond its New York offices and travel halfway across the country to Salt Lake City. You have to go to a quiet residential neighborhood and to a split-level house with a kid-sized basketball goal in the driveway. You have to go upstairs and visit 4-year-old Gracie Driffill’s bedroom. This is how far JetBlue’s culture has to reach. In fact, this is where the JetBlue experience begins for more than 100 customers a night, under the watchful eye of Raggedy Ann, Potbelly Bear, and Gracie’s other dolls, and occasionally, Chewy, a Pomeranian-Chihuahua mix.
Mary Driffill, Gracie’s mom, works here as an at-home reservations agent for JetBlue. She’s one of about 700 in Salt Lake City.
David Neeleman pioneered the arrangement at his first airline, Morris Air, and it worked so well that he replicated it at JetBlue. Equipping agents with a home computer eliminates the need for a large expensive call center. It also boosts efficiency and retention in a job with traditionally high turnover. It offers agents, many of them at-home moms, flexible part-time work. When call volume is down, someone on the operations desk in the Salt Lake City office sends an email offering voluntary time off, or VTO, to the first agents who respond. Among the other advantages, says Driffill, is avoiding a commute to the office, relaxed work attire (she wears PJs during late-night shifts), and the ability to be close to her three children, Gracie, Payden, 9, and Ethan, 7. “It’s the best job I’ve ever had,” says Driffill, who worked 11 years in customer service at a bank in her last job. “I love it when people ask where I work.”
Although she works alone, she doesn’t feel alone. The customers help make her feel connected to the airline and its mission. “Every day I talk to people who love the company as much as I do,” the effusive 34-year-old says. “That reminds me I’m a part of this.” And the JetBlue staff constantly reaches out to her, reminding her that she’s a crew member, as important as any other member of the team. She gets periodic Blue Notes like everybody else, informal memos written by COO Dave Barger about the latest company news. And on a monthly basis, sometimes more frequently, she attends barbecues, lunches, and other get-togethers with her fellow at-home agents at JetBlue’s Salt Lake City office.
During a typical week, it’s up to John Nader to make Driffill feel included at the airline. A supervisor with 22 agents on his team, Nader displays a group photo of them in his cubicle at the call center. He contacts several of them every couple of days, by phone or email, sometimes to evaluate recent calls, which he monitors, and other times just to check in. Just as CEO David Neeleman makes a point of knowing crew members on a personal level, Nader takes an interest in his agents that goes beyond their productivity. He keeps a file on each agent to keep the details straight. There’s Colette, who just broke her ankle on her birthday; Jennifer, who just returned from Disneyland with her family; and Mary, who has three kids. He’s not the only JetBlue manager calling the at-home agents. His supervisor also calls a couple of at-home agents every day as well, to find out if they’re happy with Nader and the other team supervisors. Driffill talks to someone at JetBlue every day, even if it’s just the support desk answering a question.
What’s remarkable is that even though she has flown JetBlue only once and has yet to see CEO David Neeleman or Barger in person, Driffill shares their passion for service and for the airline. As the first point of contact with customers, she feels a responsibility to deliver “the JetBlue experience” over the phone. “I hear about David’s flights from passengers, and I know everything he does could be shot down if I don’t have the same tone,” she says.
Her six-hour shift includes two 15-minute breaks. Otherwise, it’s one call after another. It sounds repetitious, but she doesn’t have to follow a script. As long as she collects the necessary information and covers the appropriate material, she can be conversational. “It’s about quality not quantity,” she says.
As a result, she often sounds as though she’s booking flights for a friend instead of a complete stranger. Her wit and warmth come through. During the course of a marathon call to straighten out a complicated billing matter, she manages to turn a customer in New York named Walter from testy to gushy. Before hanging up, he tells her, “There is not one person with whom I would have rather spent the last 25 minutes.”
Now that is the JetBlue experience.