On the surface, I love Virgin Atlantic Airways. It succeeded in setting itself apart from every other boring airline. It’s cool. It’s daring. It’s sexy. It understands a customer-centric experience. Or is it just a façade? Under the covers, does it really operate in exactly the same way as any other airline?
The Virgin Voice
The voice and brand of your company are your most important assets. Unlike the commodities you sell or the services you offer, voice and brand are difficult to copy. The way in which you interact with your customers defines your brand as well as (and usually better than) any advertisement.
Virgin Atlantic understands this (for the most part). The ad campaigns it ran when the Austin Powers movies came out were classic. It created a swanky image. It carried forth this voice, this brand, and this image throughout all its channels. Its direct mail featured an equally compelling style, and the Web site is very cool (so was the one it built for the film promo, the now-defunct VirginShaglantic.com). The site looks different from any other airline site I’ve seen. Even the frequent flyer card looks swanky. It’s a daring red. I feel daring just carrying it in my wallet.
Late last year, I flew Virgin to London, where I was (ironically) keynoting a conference on multichannel marketing. It was ironic because Virgin is now one of the examples I use in multichannel marketing presentations when I talk about companies that almost got it right… and then completely blew it.
Everything But a Mile-High Club
The way the conference had booked the tickets, I flew “Upper Class” (Virgin’s first-class service) to London, then “Premium Economy” (its pseudo business class) on my return. The Upper Class cabin was amazing. Everything looked like it came out of an Austin Powers film. Fabrics were lush reds and all the trim was shiny chrome. In the middle of the cabin was a full, sit-down bar. You’re entitled to either a massage or a manicure during the flight. Yeah, baby!
I arrived in London unbelievably impressed with Virgin’s unified voice, unified brand, and unified customer experience. Until the trip back to New York, that is. In Premium Economy, I found the seats amazingly uncomfortable. The flight attendants gave me about a thousand of those cheap airplane pillows to help me mold my chair into something approximating comfortable.
It was so bad, an attendant suggested I fill out a customer service form on the plane and complain. I did. Although I was having an awful trip, I was impressed Virgin is so customer-centric it even wants to hear from me while I’m still en route!
I wrote a letter expressing how excited I was to fly Virgin, how I loved its brand, and how amazing Upper Class was. When I got home, I dreamed of how well customer service was going to treat me. After all, Virgin had no rivals (in my eyes) in the customer experience department, other than (maybe) Disney. Thoughts of free upgrades, free flights, and an autographed picture of Austin Powers saying, “Sorry, baby, this Virgin wasn’t gentle enough!” filled my imagination.
Several weeks later, I received a one-page letter. It read:
I was surprised to read your comments, as most passengers find the seats very spacious. Our seats have a seat pitch of 38 inches and a recline of 8 inches. I am glad our flight attendants were able to supply you with extra pillows to make you comfortable.
Not only did Virgin fail to make it up to me with free goodies, it didn’t even acknowledge I had a problem. It refuted my claims of being uncomfortable with quantitative analysis, telling me that I couldn’t have been uncomfortable because its seats have a recline of 8 inches! Was the company joking? Does it really think this letter solves my problem? Virgin is a bit too impressed with its 8 inches.
Virgin No More
Any company whose customer service responded the way Virgin’s did would be on my blacklist. Virgin’s example is even worse, because it set an expectation it would be better. Its unified voice and unified customer experience really had me thinking, “These guys get it.” A unified customer experience needs only one weak spot to unravel completely. For Virgin (as with many companies), the weak spot is its customer service department.
Attention, all multichannel marketers! Attention, all brand marketers! Every customer touch point needs to reinforce your brand and your voice. The people in your company who talk directly to consumers must carry your brand and your voice with them as they enter a dialogue with customers. It only takes one employee who doesn’t understand your voice or your carefully crafted user experience to dissolve your brand. One conversation with a real person carries more brand weight than all the mass-marketing you have ever done.
Unify your brand, unify your customer touch points, and unify your user experience. More importantly, understand your brand is created not by the messages the brand marketing department prints on a billboard but by the way you interact with customers.
Until next time…
Jack is off this week. Today’s column ran earlier on ClickZ.