A member of Southwest’s Internal Customer Care Team talks with an Employee. During the COVID-19 pandemic, personal phone calls became a critical point of connection between Employees and ICC Team members.


All in the Family: Southwest’s Internal Customer Care Team

For Michael, running had always been a way of life.

So when he started growing breathless after walking just a few steps, he knew something was seriously wrong. Just three weeks after joining Southwest Airlines in Atlanta in 2013, he was faced with the unthinkable: Stage IV thymic cancer.

Concerned about how his new employer would respond to the news and whether he would be able to keep his job, Michael was overwhelmed by the outpouring of support. “I received a phone call from a Southwest Leader,” he said, “and they told me, ‘Your job now is to take care of yourself. We’ll be here when you come back.’” In his 42 years working in the airline industry, Michael had never seen Employees rally around their Coworkers in difficult times the way they do at Southwest. That support would carry Michael through a courageous four-year battle with cancer, to which he sadly succumbed in 2017.

“Southwest was founded on the Golden Rule of treating others like you want to be treated,” said Andrea Mathews, Manager in the Executive Office at Southwest. “We’ve always believed deeply in the Southwest Family. And part of being a Family is taking care of each other.”

From its earliest years, Southwest built its Culture on an “audacious commitment” to put Employees first. Without a doubt, the architect behind the development of Southwest Culture was President Emeritus Colleen Barrett, who went out of her way to make sure every Employee felt cared for as part of the Southwest Family. For many years, she took personal responsibility for reaching out to Employees who were celebrating or grieving or navigating through difficulties. “It’s just what families do,” Colleen said. “If families have cancer, you reach out. If families have babies, you reach out.”

But when that Family gets to be 60,000 strong, it’s more work than one person can manage.  That’s where Southwest’s Internal Customer Care (ICC) Team comes in. Formally established in the early 2000s, this Team is behind the tens of thousands of letters, phone calls, gifts, care packages, remembrances, and other thoughtful touches that happen over the course of a year at Southwest. Events such as marriages, anniversaries, adoptions, births, and birthdays are celebrated, but the Team also grieves with Employees experiencing losses or significant health challenges. Military deployments are recognized. The Team even responds to the loss of a beloved pet.

A personal note and gift from Gary Kelly, sent by the ICC team, celebrates the recent marriage of a Southwest Employee.

The COVID-19 crisis of 2020 has had a significant impact on the way the Team can care for Employees, and most of the Team’s work in 2020 has focused on making personal connections via phone rather than sending gifts and cards. The Team makes 20 to 30 phone calls a day to connect with Southwest Employees. “I didn’t realize how truly life-changing some of these calls have been and how much our People need to talk to other people right now,” said Nan Barry, Managing Director of the Executive Office.  

Keeping tabs on the well-being of Employees and responding to the hundreds of incoming reports about life events impacting individual Employees or their Coworkers is a role that keeps ICC Team Members busy year-round. A web-based submission form allows any Employee to send a note about significant events they or their Coworkers are experiencing. The Team monitors Facebook and other social media channels for updates, and collaborates with departmental Leaders to stay abreast of what’s happening with their Team Members.

According to Andrea, working on the ICC Team isn’t a role just anyone can fill. Team Members are hired only internally and must have been at Southwest for at least three years—long enough to have experienced the love and care that comes with being part of the Southwest Family. The Team also looks for Employees with a natural inclination to care for others. “It takes the right person to do this job, because you are dealing with a lot of things when you step into it,” she said. “You can just tell when caring for others is what comes naturally to someone. It comes across in everything they do.”

It’s what Michael experienced firsthand during his battle with cancer—the support and personal attention from both Southwest Leaders and the ICC Team that made those interactions meaningful. “It isn’t something they do because they think it makes them look good,” he said. “They do it because they have a heart, and they truly love their Employees.”