In-flight insight: The key to customer experience at Virgin Atlantic

16th Jan 2015

The 17.35 VS11 flight from London Heathrow to Boston four days before Christmas was a pretty unique experience.

Virgin Atlantic, promoting a new partnership with Microsoft, decided to serve up a number of festive treats for the passengers onboard, including a free Windows 8.1 tablet, a Christmas dinner and a visit from Santa Claus, mid-flight. They even provided a ‘live’ video broadcast to everyone, showing Kris Kringle himself landing his sleigh on the plane roof and entering through a cabin door, before he appeared in person to dish out Christmas presents.  

Add to that some free festive hats, as well as a few nifty apps pre-loaded onto the tablets (including a Santa Claus tracking device), and there’s no doubt those involved were given a flight they were unlikely to forget in a hurry.

Customer loyalty

OK, so the event itself may have been about announcing the partnership between the airline and one of its leading technology partners, but at the very heart of the merriments were some important innovations that Virgin Atlantic hopes will become central to its plans to improve the customer experiences it delivers over the next 12 months and beyond. 

First up, it’s important to note that, at present, the airline industry isn’t the easiest of sectors in which to please customers. While, according to some polls, customer satisfaction levels across the travel industry remain strong, many major airlines have struggled to come to terms with the growing decline in customer loyalty, as consumer expectations increase in the sector.

Once the bedrock of customer retention, airline loyalty programs have been the focus of scrutiny in recent times, with a recent Deloitte survey suggesting “airline loyalty programs are not as effective as they could be in driving loyalty among their core audience” and that 72% of high-frequency business travellers participate in multiple programs as a result.

Add to this the growing influence social media is having on highlighting airlines’ failings as and when they arise, and it becomes clear that the relationship between airline and customer is changing dramatically; while adding more complexity.

However, while such statistics have got some industry players scratching around for new ways to engage their frequent flyers, Virgin Atlantic is in somewhat of a unique position, because despite giving the appearance of a huge airline worldwide, the airline is fairly low-key with 18 departures a day, and has customers that tend to only fly once or twice a year.

As a result, loyalty and reward programmes drop down the pecking order and are replaced by making sure the airline upholds an on-going relationship with customers in-between trips, and then delivering the right experience to them in advance and during the flights themselves. It’s something Virgin Atlantic has been keen to stress as its brand mantra since its very inception in 1984, when Richard Branson packed a cabin-load of celebrities off to Newark to promote the airline’s inaugural flight.  

Data insight

While not the fundamental purpose of the VS11 promotion, one key insight Virgin Atlantic were able to glean from the flight was just how much passengers on long-haul journeys were keen to be involved in more interaction when flying, whether with fellow passengers or with staff.

According to the airline’s head of customer experience, Debbie Hulme, and brand and customer engagement director, Reuben Arnold, on VS11 this involved a pre-loaded chat app on the passengers’ free tablet that proved a hit with those onboard, and provided Virgin Atlantic with some intriguing information. With Wi-Fi available for free onboard all of its new 787 aircraft, the option of in-flight chat is one Virgin Atlantic may yet explore, in order to improve the in-flight experience and encourage passenger feedback while flying.  

“The level of engagement [via digital means, on VS11] with the passengers was incredible,” says Hulme, regarding how live onboard interactions may help improve future customer experiences.

“It was really about us using insight from the data that we gather to continue to develop unique and new experiences for our customers. We managed to get a lot of data and understanding from the behaviours on the flight that will help us to continue to enhance the digital and physical experiences we provide for customers in the future.”

Arnold adds that the VS11 event was, in a sense, about testing how an airline can improve, “bringing together that digital and physical experience” that is usually overlooked by airlines as part of the flying experience.  

“It created a sense of community on the aircraft – and particularly on a long flight like that – it really helps keep customers positive and the time passed much quicker,” he adds.

In-flight innovation

As well as creating more platforms for engagement, Virgin Atlantic is keen to pioneer the concept of turning flights into more of an event for passengers, having recently hosted London drum-and-bass band, Rudimental to perform the first ever gig to be live streamed over the Atlantic Ocean on one of its flights.

Last year, the airline also piloted a scheme that gave out free Google Glasses to help speed up the service between flight attendant and passengers, while the company has also recently rolled-out mobile boarding passes to speed up the check-in process across all of its flights. Arnold calls this the airline’s push to ensure the best “end-to-end experience” for its customers, while further exploring the fusion of digital and physical experience:

“We have a great opportunity with our customers onboard and with us for a good space of time to be able to deliver on that great experience promise, but more and more we’re looking at how that experience starts before the customer arrives with us and also how we continue that beyond their arrival at the other end.

“It’s about understanding what the customer’s needs are at each stage of an end-to-end journey. From the moment of consideration through to booking, travelling to the airport and the flight. At each step we have to understand not just the functional needs but also the emotional needs. That way we can think about innovative ways of addressing them, and can be anything from communications, when they want information, how we present it, our tone of voice etc, whether the customer needs reassurance.”

Social customer service

As with other carriers, inevitably, social media plays a key role in Virgin Atlantic’s customer experience strategy moving forwards, with the airline offering a 24/7 customer support platform on Twitter “because customers now expect social customer service”, as well as a separate account that can update people with their flight status in real-time.

However, Hulme acknowledges social media as being just another communication channel, and that airline strives to offer the same level of response as it would via phone or live chat on its mobile site.

“Social media isn’t the panacea but it is the relevancy piece – making sure you understand how customers want to interact with you. If they want to interact through social media that’s great, but there’s still a large proportion of our customers who want to interact via the phone and then others through email. It’s about communicating through multiple channels and making sure the message is delivered in the most appropriate form for each individual.

“We’re talking about long-haul travel – for a large proportion of people that’s not an everyday occurrence, and do need that reassurance that regular communication provides. Equally there are those that are very familiar with the process who want the easiest experience possible.

“Our strategy isn’t significantly different – we’ve always strived to create unique experiences for customers. Flying isn’t something that has to be endured, and that’s something the airline has always strived to broadcast, it’s just that now we have a digital dimension to cover as well as the physical.”

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