Virgin Mobile, Alaska Airlines Lecture on Listening

Customer Service
Customer Service

The voice of the customer concept was in full focus at last week's Customer UNinterrupted conference in San Francisco. Executives from Virgin Mobile, Alaska Airlines, and other firms discussed the impact of understanding customer needs on both customer experience and financial performance.

Many customers have grown tired of not being listened to, according to research presented by contact center vendor Convergys at the conference. The Convergys Customer Scorecard finds that while 92 percent of executives believe they listen to and act on customer feedback, only 64 percent of customers agree that they do. "Customers have been telling companies what's wrong [with the customer experience]," says Ryan Pellet, vice president of global business units for Convergys. "But if a company does nothing to act on it, customers aren't going to provide feedback anymore. The predominant activity is just to leave." And with so many products becoming commodities, there are fewer barriers to leaving. Pellet says that, as a result, companies can't afford to ignore customer needs.

Ted Vagelos, former senior vice president of customer management for Virgin Mobile, agrees. He says that at Virgin Mobile he differentiated customer service for customers calling from cell phones because of their different needs. Cell phone customers, he says, use their minutes to call and tend to have a higher stress level when they call. In addition, most cell phone users multitask while calling, and are not usually sitting at one spot. These different needs require a differentiated customer strategy.

Virgin Mobile customers using their cell phones are identified by their phone number in the call center's system, then placed at the front of the call queue to reduce call length. In addition, Vagelos says, their information is prepopulated so customers don't have to waste time inputting information Virgin already has. Call center agents' scripts are shortened in the interest of time, and instead of asking customers to write information down the agent can text the information to the customer's cell phone. "The customers feel like they're being treated well," Vagelos says. "The key is always listening to the customer. The easier you are to do business with, the more customer loyalty increases, which increases the bottom line," he says.

Alaska Airlines also takes the voice of the customer very seriously. Mark Guerette, director of e-commerce at the airline, told the conference attendees that his Web team employs multiple listening posts to gather customer feedback. The airline facilitates three advisory boards: one with Alaskan citizens ("It's very important not to lose sight of where we came from," he says), corporate stakeholders, and gold frequent flier members. Gold advisory members also visit Alaska Airlines' headquarters twice per quarter to "do a gut check" on new projects and share their opinions with employees. "They feel a sense of ownership, even calling it 'our airline' in some cases," Guerette says.

The company also goes to where its customers are: the airport. The Web team sets up in the Alaska Airlines flier lounge and conducts 20-minute interviews with travelers in exchange for extra mileage points and free drinks. The team also visits the gate areas to talk to non-business travelers.

Guerette says one lesson learned was that customers expect a consistent experience whether they interact with the website or one of Alaska Airlines' three call centers. So he asked 12 call center agents to use the website when fielding calls and provide feedback about their experience to identify gaps between the website and call center experiences. He found that agents have dynamic options at their disposal during a call, such as the availability of half-price promotions or schedules. On the website, however, the information was not presented as dynamically and users had to search multiple pages to find the same information. Guerette says his team is working to create more dynamic options on the site as a result.

Vagelos compares acting on the voice of the customer to playing chess. "You have to anticipate needs and future customer actions," he says. And that requires listening to customer feedback to design a customer-focused plan that will create a better experience, and keep customers from leaving.