Not many airlines offer the cult movie Snakes on a Plane to its passengers on its in-flight movie list. But Virgin Atlantic Airways isn't like many other airlines. The brand has a cool factor that builds buzz, but keeps customers coming back with a strategy based on choice.
"Differentiation is everything," Paul Dickinson, sales and marketing director of Virgin Atlantic said at the recent
Conference Board Customer Experience conference. "We're small, with only 40 planes. The only chance we've got is to be better."
Its strategy is to stay flexible to customer needs by giving them choices. If customers have choices, then they feel as
if they can own the experience, which builds satisfaction and loyalty.
For example, Virgin Atlantic bucks the current trend of charging customers for booking via the phone. "We haven't forced people to book or communicate with us through one way," Dickinson said. "We don't penalize them for calling us. We're better off giving them what they want, rather than treating them like a pariah for wanting to call us." He adds that the average transaction value in the call center is actually higher than the self-service Web option.
Dickinson spoke of the special attention given to its upper class passengers, the company's most valuable customers
(MVCs). These customers have four places they can go during a flight -- their seat, the office area, the in-flight
bar, or spa area. Also, customers can choose when to eat their meal. And in what Dickinson considers the most personal
customer choice, "customers can choose how to get sick," in sickbags featuring different artwork.
The commitment to the customer radiates off the plane as well. "The end-to-end experience is the same everywhere for the customer, not just in select spots," he said. Dickinson spoke of a new service that offers check-in to all customers during their vacation -- on the beach or in Disney World, for instance. "Both effectively extend the holiday experience by at least
half a day," he explained. Customers can also get rides to the airport in Virgin-sponsored limousines or even motorcycles. "It's a way to take control of the airport experience," Dickinson says.
In its customer service department, the company hired a consultant to rewrite customer service letters to be more
informal. "We want to have a much softer, one-to-one style of speaking to customers."
How can a company operate with such flexibility? Dickinson said it requires complete alignment with the customer vision. The workforce is highly engaged, he said. Eighty-six percent of the staff is "very proud" to work for Virgin, and the other 14 percent is "quite proud." A "Virgin person" is someone who will listen to the customer, has passion for new ideas, stays calm
under pressure, and hates standing still, he said. It's a culture that is instilled in the DNA of all Virgin businesses, and a reason the Virgin brand can stretch across industries as diverse as transportation, music, telecom, and even biotech.
One thing that's vital is to get the culture completely aligned, and trust employees to handle whatever situation
comes up, Dickinson said. "A lot of things can happen at 36,000 feet."
This culture of choice has netted Virgin Atlantic some impressive results. Ninety-five percent of upper class customers say they have received good or excellent service, and 96 percent would fly Virgin Atlantic again. Additionally, 95 percent would recommend the service to others.
Dickinson admits the airline has more work to do. Its premium economy and economy passengers currently have
more of a cookie-cutter experience, and his team is looking to change that with choices that can also keep
prices low. "Today's economy customers are tomorrow's upper class customers," he notes.