How Colleen Barrett builds a culture of high-flying spirit to fuel growth at Southwest Airlines

Tapping talents
After employees are hired, Southwest has to deprogram them. At most traditional companies, employees strive to be professional, which is often interpreted as suppressing humor and personality. “That’s the craziest thing I ever heard,” Barrett says. “One of the most important and significant freedoms we allow our employees is the freedom to be an individual. I have to stress, particularly with new hires, and particularly with pilots, do not spend your first year as you would at any other company not wanting to be known and just being low-key until you get off of probation. If you do that, you are wasting the very first year of your life at Southwest Airlines. “Good grief, we hired you because of who you are. We didn’t hire you because you filled a mold.”

Southwest has handbooks and guidelines that employees are given to help them handle tricky situations with customers. But those are only guidelines. Barrett wants employees to make their own judgments on how to best handle a customer. “I can’t sit here in Dallas, Texas, and write a scenario for every single thing our employees will run into, so they have to use some common sense,” Barrett says. “I don’t want people using rule books as reasons not to help customers, or each other.”

Southwest encourages its employees to have fun. The airline has a book of games that circulates among flight attendants that gives them ideas for how to keep customers entertained. Southwest employees contribute their own ideas to it, and the book is changed about once a year so the games don’t get old.

Among the games flight attendants have used is one that gives a prize to the person on board with the oldest penny. The prizes aren’t usually anything special — it’s whatever they can find on the plane, including luggage tags and extra snacks. But it’s basic psychology, again, that aids Southwest: People love to win. “People will do anything to compete,” Barrett says. “It doesn’t matter how silly the prize. … It’s unbelievable what you can get grown adults to do.”

And Barrett trusts that Southwest is hiring people who know how to judge when it’s the right time to play a game.

“You have to know your audience,” Barrett says. “A bunch of businessmen taking a 6:30 a.m. flight from Dallas to Houston reading The Wall Street Journal, they don’t want you playing games with them. But on Friday afternoon, when it is the end of a long week and they are loosening their ties and having a cold beer and they are on their way home, then it is probably OK. You learn that sort of thing from your peers, and you learn it from their body language.”

Barrett also applauds efforts to diffuse difficult customer service situations with humor. For example, a ticket agent in Houston was faced with an upset customer claiming he was a big shot and entitled to special treatment. “He really was all over her about, ‘Don’t you know who I am?’” says Barrett. “So she got on the speaker and said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, I have a problem. Maybe you can help. This gentlemen in the blue suit and green tie, he doesn’t know who he is. Can anybody help him?’ Eventually he was falling down laughing at it. You have to know if you can pull it off.”

And what if the customer doesn’t laugh? Barrett says she might visit with the employee and talk about what went wrong. But she is careful not to scold unless it is warranted, because she wants her employees to take chances. “I’m OK with failure as long as they learn from their mistakes,” Barrett says.

Not only does Southwest trust the employees’ judgment on the best ways to handle customers, Southwest considers those employees experts on how to save money. Its pilots know the shortest routes that save the most jet fuel. And, also recounted in the book “Nuts!,” a flight attendant once suggested the company stop buying special trash bags imprinted with the company logo for collecting trash at the end of a flight; use regular garbage bags instead. It saved Southwest thousands of dollars. And a computer technician told the airline he could build the computers it needed much more inexpensively than it could buy them, so the airline took him up on his offer.