The secret sauce behind Richard Branson’s customer service success

We recently came across a Forbes interview with Branson, whereby communication coach Carmine Gallo discussed a conversation he had with Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz. Gallo explained that Schultz believed despite selling coffee as a product, it wasn’t the type of business the company was in.

He turned the statement into a question for Branson by asking what business Virgin was in. Branson replied: “The experience business. Anybody can sell a cup of coffee. Anyone can buy an airplane and we all buy planes from the same manufacturers. If you fly on a Virgin plane… you know you’re going to have a completely different experience.”

Admittedly, he does know his stuff – Virgin has been known for its customer service. But what are the secrets to his success?

According to Branson, the features and amenities Virgin America offers – such as mood lighting, leather seats, newer planes and entertainment systems – are all part of the package, and while the package might entice customers to give the product a try, the quality of the interaction they have with Virgin’s employees encourages them to return.

Branson told Gallo that quality interactions between leadership, staff, and customers separate the average company from the exceptional one in any category.

“When we started Virgin Atlantic 30 years ago we had one 747 and we were competing with airlines that had an average of 300 planes each,” Branson said. “Every single one of those airlines have gone bankrupt because they didn’t have customer service. They had might, but they didn’t have customer service. Customer service is everything in the end.”

In the case of Virgin America, Cush explained that only about one out of 100 people who applied for a job at Virgin are selected. Cush said that one of the airline’s guiding principles is to establish a great culture for workers, “where they feel motivated and included”.

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Happy employees generally translate into happy customers. And once you hire the right people and give them the best training, let them use their imagination and creativity to solve problems.

Cush said: “When we talk about empowerment, what we’re saying is we will teach you the basics, but we expect you to use your imagination and your brain power to solve the rest of it. As we always say in our company, it’s better to ask forgiveness rather than permission. If you think you need to do something, do it and we’ll sort it out later.”

Branson suggested that to achieve consistently terrific customer service, you must hire wonderful people who believe in your company’s goals, habitually do better than the norm and who will love their jobs.

“Rather than providing rules or scripts, you should ask them to treat the customer as they themselves would like to be treated – which is surely the highest standard,” he said.

Gallo tells of a time when during a fog delay in San Francisco, one Virgin America in-flight team took it upon themselves to bring the first class drink cart out to the gate. Waiting passengers were offered complimentary cocktail service before they boarded the plane.

“Those team members received a call from Richard Branson himself, congratulating them for finding a creative solution and keeping their customers happy,” he said.

And just to ensure that his customer service employees are maintaining his vision for the company, Branson will sometimes reach out to customers or pretend to be a customer himself.

He wrote in “The Virgin Way: Everything I Know About Leadership” that he even tried masking his voice on a customer service call, demanding to be put in touch with Richard Branson. He said: “I am so pathetically bad at imitating someone else’s voice that Penni, my trusted assistant for many years, sat there and let me make a complete fool of myself with some trumped-up complaint before saying, ‘Well, thank you so much for sharing all that with me, sir. Let me see if Branson is available to take your call.’

“She then kept me hanging on for what seemed like an eternity before coming back on the line to say, ‘Sorry, Richard, but you appear to be out of the office at the moment, can someone else help you?’ before dissolving into howls of laughter.”

It’s not a bad idea to occasionally check up on your customer service staff. Start by going to your company’s website, Branson said. He explained that when you’re playing customer, one of the first things to do is to try and locate a phone number to call on your website that will enable you to get through to a real human being. If you can find the number try calling it and count how many recorded options, pre-screens and hand-offs you are forced through before you get to a real person.

If they handle your problem well, consider identifying yourself as the boss, he said, and praise them for their efforts. And if the experience is a nightmare, consider contacting their supervisor and explaining that they’ll need to address the issue with their team.

Branson wrote that in his many years of business experience, he found that unhappy customers who have a problem handled quickly and effectively end up being more loyal than if they never had a problem at all.

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