Recently I was on a panel about the impact of cultural change on customer experience. My fellow panelists included Meltem Uysaler, a senior vice president of customer experience for Citi, and Patricia John, the customer experience director for Europcar UK (a car rental agency).

Right at the end of the session, Patricia responded to an audience question by saying that Europcar focused on creating a customer-centric culture because they can’t script every interaction. Therefore, employees need to be able to make the right judgment calls on their own when dealing with customers (or anything having to do with customers, which includes virtually everything a company does).

Patricia John is right. At Forrester, we see this dynamic time and again through our research. For example, every time I see USAA’s Wayne Peacock speak, he always uses the phrase, “We do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do.” That’s extremely credible coming from Wayne: He’s the EVP of Member Experience at USAA, which is the number one bank, the number one credit card provider, and the number one insurance provider in our Customer Experience Index.

You, too, probably see this dynamic because it plays out in the news every day. Just compare the decision made by a Southwest Airlines pilot to the decisions made by some United Airlines employees.

The story of the Southwest Airlines pilot happened back in January of 2011. That’s when the pilot held a flight so that a single passenger, a grandfather, could make it to the hospital in time to be with his young grandson, who was about to be taken off life support after a tragic accident. The grandfather‘s family had called ahead to the airline because they knew that the timing was tight for this unplanned, emergency trip. As the man ran from the security checkpoint in his socks, carrying the shoes that he didn‘t take the time to put back on, he was met at the jet bridge by the pilot, whom he thanked profusely. The pilot‘s response: “No problem. They can‘t leave without me anyway.”

Compare that to the story of what happened when United lost track of a 10-year-old girl traveling from her home to her summer camp. Her parents had paid an extra fee for the “unaccompanied minor” service but despite that, no one met the girl when she landed in Chicago and needed to change planes. Not only did United employees tell the little girl to wait when she asked them for help, they failed to notify her parents about the mishap – the parents found out that their daughter was missing when the camp called them to say that she had not arrived. (In case you’re interested, I wrote about this incident in detail in a previous blog post.)

So here we have two companies that compete directly for our business in many US markets. One airline has a culture that resulted in a pilot doing the right thing for a customer despite the fact that we can all easily imagine him getting in trouble for it (he didn’t – that’s the beauty of a companywide, customer-centric culture). The other airline has a culture where employees either didn’t realize the right thing to do (mind-boggling as that seems to parents) or else just plain didn’t do it.

To Patricia John’s point, neither one of these interactions – a grandfather with a dying grandson, a lost unaccompanied child – is something you’d expect a company to script, or to have all their employees memorize that script if they did. That’s where the safety net of engaged, customer-centric employees comes in.

Do the decisions made by employees who do the right thing (or not) actually matter to customers? Yes. Southwest Airlines topped all other airlines in our Customer Experience Index, with a score of 79 (the Good category). In sharp contrast, United came in with a score of 54 (the Very Poor category). Keep in mind that these scores result from a survey of the respective airlines’ own customers – they reflect broad-based sentiment.

What can you do if you want to create a customer-centric culture? In our new book, Outside In, my co-author and I outline the practices that lead to engaged employees. These include screening candidates for customer-centric values as part of the hiring process; creating a communal conscience by systematically sharing stories that illustrate customer experience best practices; and tying raises, bonuses, and promotions to customer-centric behaviors.

Although adopting these practices can be hard, we strongly suggest that you make the effort to adopt them anyway – just because it’s the right thing to do.