September 24, 2007


Colleen.jpgColleen Barrett, President and Corporate Secretary of Southwest Airlines and long-time right arm to Herb Kelleher, shared insights with a sold-out crowd at the Tandy Executive Speaker Series into how the company developed and maintained its reputation as a customer satisfaction leader.

“We had a goal at Southwest, probably from day one, that we wanted to be thought of and known as a hometown airline in every community that we serve,” said Barrett, who also serves on the Board of Directors of JC Penney, is in the Junior Achievement Hall of Fame and recently named (again) by Forbes magazine as one of the most powerful women in business.

Barrett came to Southwest with Kelleher in 1978, so she has played a major role in what she called the company’s classic “David vs. Goliath” story. She noted that when Southwest went into business, only 13 percent of Americans flew. Of those, 99 percent were male, typically business travelers. At the time, flying was considered a traveling option for the wealthy. Southwest set out to change the mindset.

In addition to positioning themselves as a low-cost air carrier, Southwest sought out short-haul traffic routes, namely because no one else was doing it, Barrett said.  In many of the markets Southwest entered, their low-fare approach often forced other airlines to lower their fares. She indicated that while the competing airlines might not have matched Southwest fares, the increased competition was and still is beneficial to the consumer.Colleen2.jpg
According to Barrett, the focus of Southwest from the onset was to provide on-time, affordable air travel with customer-focused service. That service is a driving force within Southwest. The company and its employees emphasize customer relationships – creating them, maintaining them and strengthening them. Barrett joked that the customer relationships are so strong that she “has to be one of the few presidents of a Fortune 500 company who gets calls, quite regularly, from customers who will say ‘I haven’t seen [a specific Southwest employee] in a while, is something wrong?’”

While customer relationships are a top priority at Southwest, Barrett made it clear that the company’s employees are its first priority. Barrett recalled the time when Kelleher was quoted in Readers Digest saying that customers aren’t always right.

“I got 17,000 letters in 30 days,” said Barrett. “And I was the Customer Relations Department back then – I was it.” 

Barrett emphasized that one of her main priorities is to ensure that Southwest employees are aware of their value.

“I spend about 80% of my time trying to ensure that the employees feel good about what they’re doing and feel empowered to serve the cause of Southwest Airlines.”

Barrett talked about her days as a legal secretary to Kelleher, the early days of the airline, and the company’s outstanding reputation as a great place to work.

“When you make employees feel good about their work and when they know you trust them, they will make the customers feel good. That is why Southwest Airlines has been so successful and why being a low-airfare airline work so well for us. Practice the golden rule, passengers will come back for more.

“I think one of our best traits is that we have always under-promised and over-delivered.”

Barrett said she grew up in a low-income family in Vermont and her mom taught her to never be ashamed of her background.

“I never had a career path,” Barrett said. “I am just a good story of what can happen in America.”

As president and corporate secretary, Barrett supervises the leadership, management and budget dealings in the Southwest Airlines marketing department. She also works in the customer relations, corporate communications and employee and labor relations departments. She has held many leadership positions within Southwest Airline over the years. It was recently announced that she and Kelleher will step down from their current positions in 2008 but stay with the company through 2013.

Elaine Cole
PR Manager
Neeley School of Business at TCU