Plane holiday customer service

What Virgin Holidays' three year plan teaches us about building successful service strategies

9th Apr 2019
In association with

Virgin Holidays was declared Contact Centre of the Year at the 2018 European Contact Centre & Customer Service Awards. We speak to their head of customer centre, Luke Squires, about how a three year plan is transforming the company’s operations.

Virgin Holidays are one of the UK’s leading holiday tour operators. With a universally-recognisable brand, the company sits at the centre of a £14.4bn industry which has seen a 3.8% growth between 2014 and 2019.

However, whilst the sector Virgin Holidays resides in is – on the surface – a buoyant one, the reality is the company has experienced its fair share of turbulence as a result of constantly-changing market forces; from the rise of comparison websites driving industry-wide prices down, to the state of flux that comes with having bricks-and-mortar stores on high streets across the country.

And then there’s the contact centre. So often underappreciated, with consumer behaviour and preferences seemingly changing by the day, an enormous amount of pressure has now been placed on Virgin Holidays’ customer centre (to use their terminology) to offer each and every customer a personalised, consultancy-style holiday booking service that’s available whenever whim demands.

MyCustomer spoke to Luke Squires, head of Virgin Holidays' customer centre, to learn how the company has transformed its service strategy to scoop the award for Contact Centre of the Year at the recent European Contact Centre & Customer Service Awards (ECCCSAs). 

So how did Virgin Holidays’ contact centre stack up when you were appointed as its head of customer centre, just under two years ago?

LS: The customer centre has certainly evolved – we’re a business that has a huge retail estate that does a lot of things similar to our customer centre.

As a head of department I didn’t understand what the purpose of that was and why it was different to our customer centre, so I began my tenure by trying to understand what we were doing what we were doing for; and what my bosses and our customers felt about what our purpose was.

MyC: Why was having a long-term plan for your customer centre so necessary for Virgin Holidays?

LS: I knew the business and I knew the perception of the customer centre and when I was brought in there was a feeling that the customer centre was broken, but I quickly realised that this wasn’t the case, people just didn’t understand where the customer centre fitted within the business as a whole, and what its role actually was.

We have over 200 people working in the customer centre and they’re extremely talented people who want to achieve great successes in their roles. I quickly changed the language we were using to start picking up on the positives of what was going on in the customer centre rather than the negatives – catching people ‘in’ rather than catching them out. We just needed a shared direction.

That’s where having a proper plan came in: We established key points within the customer centre that gave us our purpose. We’ve just done year one of our three year plan – we’ve done structural changes and now this year is about training and next year is about delivering a new telephony platform to allow everyone to have the technology required to deliver on the purpose.  

MyC: What are the fundamental requirements from the three year plan you have in operation?    

LS: Customer centres always feel extremely important and there’s so many moving parts – the technology, the IVR, the resource planning, the occupancy….it can start to feel like a complicated environment to make positive changes to.

And whilst there’s a huge requirement from the technical side, to some degrees it helped that I didn’t approach our plans from a technical element. Instead I spoke with directors, my team, customers and influencers to establish what was most important for the future direction of the customer centre:  

  1. People – creating experts. That’s where we can fundamentally win and so it was about having the very best people, they have the very best training, that they’re fully engaged and that they understand the product so they can give the customers the very best experience. When I took over everybody in the customer centre sold everything – that was quickly changed to give people specific location expertise. We did a skills matrix to establish which employees became experts for which holiday locations. We redesigned our commission scheme so that the best people get paid really well and there’s a path for those that want to succeed to improve incentives over time.
  2. Management of information and insights. We have millions of reports available to us but now we’re working on streamlining our information management and reporting to ensure it’s clear and relatable.  
  3. Replacing what is currently a clunky CRM system. How can we not know who’s calling us into the customer centre? That’s a problem for a modern business like ours. If a customer who has previously spent money with us on a holiday calls up 2 years ago, we currently don’t have the capacity to assess their previous purchases and interactions with us. That’s not ok in this day and age. We’re working really hard to get a dynamic CRM system that talks to every touchpoint and ensures the customer has a history with us that we have visability of.
  4. Telephony. I was passionate that we needed to update our telephony system. It hasn’t changed in 8 years. How many mobile phones has someone had in that time? Telephone tech has changed dramatically and we are investing in a new project for a telephony platform by the end of 2019. It enables our CRM and improves our expertise through different channel options like chatbots and live chat.

MyC: You’ve mentioned CRM and have a system of engagement that allows you to understand the history of your customers’ interactions with your brand. How much is having a ‘single customer view’ an objective for your plan?   

LS: It’s about having the understanding of where we fit with our customer expectations. Customers expect, as a brand, for Virgin Holidays to be in cohesion with Virgin Atlantic, for instance. The customer sees those two brands as being part of the same entity, yet at present, because of various constraints, we don’t have procedures in place to tie up those two brands.

We should know a customer – for instance one that likes going to Florida based on their history of flying VA – we should have that information available to us and be able to tailor holiday plans for them around that understanding, but at present we can’t. That’s a service experience our customers expect; if we don’t meet that demand then it’s fair for the customer to ask what the purpose of our customer centre is.

Things like our renewed focus on expertise has seen our NPS significantly increase, our conversion increase and our ability to add on sales increase, solely from switching to an expertise-focused model. The telephony plans within the three year plan is a joint platform with Virgin Atlantic and we’re trying to align our thinking with both brands.

MyC: You mentioned the need for providing more insights to your management and colleagues as a necessary requirement for improving performance in the customer centre. Can you explain a little more about what kinds of insights management and colleagues are provided with and how your customer centre is changing to allow them to act on these insights?

LS: For our holiday consultants, they were previously totally blind about their performance – the only way they knew how they were performing was through intermittent meetings and conversations with their managers.

We developed a report that employees get every single morning which tells them how they are performing against their targets – weeks, months and daily; what product they’re selling the most of, where their opportunities lie, i.e. how many calls they’ve had about, say, Florida beach holidays and how many they’ve converted into sales, and whether they need coaching on a specific area.

Employees can now, for the first time ever, see daily and live what their potential earnings are, linked to the new commission scheme. That’s a huge shift in behaviour – drives more excitement around their incentives and gives them more autonomy as it’s combined with our training programme which gives consultants access to a plethora of new training opportunities.

At management level the insights used to be easy to skew – we’ve cleaned all our data and this can be accessed from any device and crucially everyone’s getting regular updates about performance at consultant and management level.

MyC: Employee engagement is a big area for the three year plan. Can you go into more detail about some of the initiatives you'll be putting in place in relation to employee engagement, and why they're important?

LS: Previously in our customer centre, we’d hear ‘we need to drive engagement’ from management and then the next moment there would be a buffet for everyone on a Friday, or a prize draw or something. That’s not engagement; it’s bought engagement. Whilst those types of event can create a fleetingly good feeling amongst employees it’s not engagement that’s embedded in the company DNA.

We sat down with the management team, looked at engagement feedback and results over the years, and tried to establish what it is that people truly want. It was elements like fairness, succession, transparency around career paths, better communication routes to speak to managers on less formal ways. That was where we introduced our MyTime initiative – it gives ownership of development to the individual colleagues and gives them total access to manager diaries, the agenda of discussion and the pathway for training. That way staff feel more like it’s an adult to adult exchange, rather than manager- subordinate, that sort of thing. Changing relationships between people in management and consultant roles is vital to our plans for a more engaged workforce.

MyC: What challenges do you foresee on the horizon as your three year strategy unfolds?   

LS: Engaging and bringing 200 people on this journey. The guys have previously had lots of promises and a lot of different plans that haven’t come to fruition and so getting everyone engaged with this particular plan has been our biggest challenge. My focus has been on being open with everyone, keeping everyone updated with how the plan is progressed and doing regular listening groups and focus groups to ensure everyone is given transparency about how we’re doing with the plan. Even when elements don’t work – we have to be clear about that and not just bury things that don’t work.

MyC: Did winning an ECCCSAs award so early into your planning phase act as justification for it?

LS: The award was fantastic and the team were over the moon. It gave the three year plan credibility with our management team as it shows that, whilst we’re not there yet, we must be on the right path as what we’re doing is being recognised externally. Our direction is set and it’s important that we keep going.   

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