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Sweating the Small Stuff

Sitting in a marketing meeting, it is not uncommon to hear a company talking the mantra of ‘the customer is in charge’. But it’s pretty rare to hear a customer saying that they feel like the boss. Virgin Atlantic is one of those very special brands that combine a huge personality with a real attention to detail when it comes to creating an excellent customer experience. As a result people who fly Virgin Atlantic love talking about the brand and are proud to be customers.

Virgin Atlantic was the brainchild of entrepreneur Richard Branson and his airline is infused with indomitable personality – daring, rebellious, enthusiastic and with an irrepressible charm. He is known for his passion for his people and his work. And while he drives the company purpose, he lets his team get on delivering. This may explain why people have so many good things to say about their experiences with the airline crew, both on the ground and in the air. This is a brand that displays real empathy.

Perhaps because of Richard’s maverick nature, hierarchy and protocol is turned on its head at Virgin to allow everyone to focus on the customer – giving power and permission to frontline staff and making some unusual demands of the senior teams. While typically the c suite holds the key to knowledge, experience, understanding – in this business, front-line-staff hold this power. Interacting with customers every day as they do, they are widely seen as owning business critical customer knowledge.  This means they choose their front line staff as carefully as the senior execs and then empower them to make decisions for their customers through a structure that is flat – when it comes to the customer, at least.

“Nobody in the business is afraid to ask whoever they need to get what they want for the customer”, says Debbie Hulme, Head of Customer Experience, for the brand. “A customer recently tweeted whilst on board one of our 787’s that she was disappointed she’d slept through the ice creams in flight. One of our social media team picked it up at our office and sent a message to the aircraft advising them of this….a crew member then found the customer and asked her up to the Upper Class bar for an ice cream to make up for it!! The customer always comes first!”

Openness starts with company executives who don’t just make decisions from lofty office blocks; they fly with customers and talk to them. “If we are looking at a new economy seat for example, our leadership team will sleep in that seat overnight and try to work in it before we buy it. And that is for all kinds of travel – not just business class,” says Gary Ranns, customer experience planner for the brand.

Execs humanize their decisions by “walking in the customers shoes every single day and interacting regularly with customers. There are very few people within the business who have not had a conversation with our leadership team, including our CEO,” says Hulme. “This week they are looking at restrooms and are there during breaks so that staff can talk to them. They are incredibly visible to staff and to customers.”

Of course, the relative health of the tens of thousands of customer interactions that happen every day also needs to be tracked, codified and shared through the business. Virgin Atlantic has a comprehensive “Voice of the Customer” program which tracks customer feedback daily so that in morning briefings, teams are able to celebrate successes from the previous day and identify what they can do better today. “It’s actively used and forward looking,” says Hulme “we employ the best people who really want to deliver fantastic customer service, it’s our job to empower them to do that.” It is this outward focus that enables the entire business to act on insight, according to a recent article by Boston Consulting Group which argues that despite their best intentions to focus on customers’ needs, many companies spend most of their time looking inward.

Unlike a lot of businesses out there, every single person who works at Virgin has access to Voice of the Customer data, in real time, both quantitatively and qualitatively so that anyone in the business can see the implications of what customers are saying and make decisions with them in mind.

“Part of the story that we talk about every day at the business is: if you take care of that little bit that you are working and do it to the very best of your ability – it will roll up. Whilst you can think about the measures that are in place, if you focus on doing your bit to the best of your ability every day that will roll up to something bigger. You’re an integral part of customer experience no matter what you’re doing,” says Ranns. “And that will affect satisfaction, advocacy and ultimately profit.”

Maya Angelou once said ‘I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel’. If our customer comments are anything to go by, Virgin Atlantic seems to embody this philosophy.

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