Virgin's customer chief: Customer experience comes down to your people

Virgin Australia's Mark Hassell shares how the airline has transformed its business to become customer-led through a combination of leadership, culture and winning the hearts and minds of staff

Organisations wanting to pay more than just lip service to customer experience not only need executive-level vision, they must win the hearts and minds of every member of staff.

That’s the view of Virgin Australia’s chief customer officer, Mark Hassell, who took to the stage at the recent Optus Vision event in Sydney to discuss the steps the airline has taken to transform itself into a customer-led organisation.

Virgin’s transformation followed the appointment of chief executive, John Borghetti, in 2010 and his “game-changing” strategy of becoming the airline of choice in Australia, Hassell said.

“John’s vision was to be the airline of choice and customer led in all market segments we participate in,” he said. “It’s a compelling message, but we could all say that. The only way to land it is to win the hearts and minds of your people.

“Our story is not about John’s effort, although the vision had to be there… it required everyone to get on-board, and positive energy from everybody wanting to be part of it.”

Hassell admitted another challenge was Virgin’s culture, which had historically been anti-strategy. “We had a real culture of ‘flying by the seat of our pants’, and just making it happen,” he said. “As fantastic as some of those traits are, we had to transform the culture of the business to really focus on customer strategy.”

Hassell detailed five steps towards becoming customer-led based on Virgin’s experience. The first is to challenge the status quo. For Virgin, this was about offering services at a fairer price and delivering what people needed.

“Think about those impenetrable things you have been told that can’t be changed, because it’s not true,” Hassell advised. “The success of the Virgin brand is about identifying segments where there is an opportunity to radically change and shape things that are important to making people’s lives better.”

Lesson two is to ensure your proposition is compelling. “We want people to prefer us, but we can’t tell people to do that… it’s about becoming the airline of choice,” Hassell said.

To do this, Virgin overhauled the look and feel of every aspect of the business, from branding under the single Virgin Australia moniker to new cabin crew uniforms, products and services and operational capabilities. Examples include investing in a new fleet of aircraft and flatbeds for longhaul flights, innovating entertainment systems, upgrading and expanding airport lounges, and introducing an inflight food menu inspired by respected chef, Luke Mangan.

Virgin also entered the business flight market, and partnered with four airlines worldwide to extend its global reach. More recently, it acquired SkyWest to expand services into more regional areas, and retained a position in the low-cost space by purchasing a 60 per cent stake in Tigerair.

Another important component was revamping the Virgin Velocity loyalty program to provide customers with additional incentives, Hassell said. The program now has nearly 4 million members.

Third on Hassell’s customer experience list is having a clear vision. He stressed the importance of data in achieving this level of interaction with staff.

“We did research on customers previously, but didn’t use that for decision-making. Today, research is at the heart of the business narrative,” he said. “Our cabin crew today will know by the end of the week what our research and data is saying about what customers think and feel about the service attributes on the flights they were on. And if we’re down, what we need to focus on.

“Getting the data to the front-line so everyone knows what their contribution is and has been, and what we all need to do to stay on-brief, is important.

“You also have to celebrate success. Our brand ambassador program is about customers, colleagues, team members, peers and bosses nominating outstanding reflections of what the brand represents and being part of the success story.”

Hassell’s fourth lesson is to focus on engagement. To do this, he said Virgin had “served notice on mediocrity”.

His fifth customer experience lesson is to unlock the power of people. An example from Virgin is its iLab Accelerator initiative, where it pulls together up to 30 of its brightest people across the organisation into a room to solve real problems and customer issues.

“The output, reaction and energy level has been fantastic,” Hassell said. “It helps us get staff payback into the business and helps everybody to engage in building that future.”

More brands share their customer experience efforts

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