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Southwest CEO: Employee Satisfaction Delivers Customer Service

Gary KellyWhen Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly, BBA '77, spoke to students as part of the Undergraduate Business Council’s VIP Speaker Series Oct. 27, the AT&T Conference Center had to almost double the size of the event’s ballroom shortly before the talk began. Students from all majors crowded into the conference center, leaving standing room only, to hear about Kelly’s experiences as CEO at what is currently the country’s most successful airline.

Southwest has managed to be profitable for 38 consecutive years, Kelly explained. In the past 40 years, he said the company has never had a layoff, never had a massive pay cut and never cut employee benefits.

Kelly, who was awarded the Dallas Business Journal's CEO of the Year for 2011, spent most of the talk discussing employee satisfaction—which he credits for much of Southwest’s success.

“It doesn’t have to be fancy, it’s just somehow establishing trust and convincing people you care about them,” he said. “When I became CEO it was a humbling experience to realize I was responsible for 35,000 people. But also that I am dependent on them.”

By treating employees well, he explained, you end up with a first-class workforce that will in turn will demonstrate a good work ethic and great customer service. Kelly referred to his employees as his “Southwest family.”

His biggest challenge as CEO is knowing how to deal with people in different complex work environments. He said the ability to communicate effectively makes someone a good employee.

“Communication is so critical, it is very hard for me to get a read on someone if they can’t express what they’re thinking,” Kelly said. “And the world moves at such a fast pace.”

Southwest as a company has been changing and modernizing, adding more long distance flights and recently acquiring AirTran Airways.

While Kelly said Southwest’s biggest competition is the car, he also told the audience that the company manages to win customers from other airlines through innovation. Each airplane has the same features—wings, cabin, engine, etc.—but the real innovation lies outside the plane.

“The focus is trying to meet customer needs and desires, and to beat the other guy,” he said. “Since Southwest has been in business there have been 250 airlines come and gone, but we’ve somehow found a way.”


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