"Customer service transformation has been vital to Virgin Experience Days' survival"
Virgin Experience Day's chief customer officer, Danni Rush, explains the role her customer service team has played in keeping the business aloft in the last 12 months.
On April 12th, the UK reopened vast swathes of its economy after a long winter COVID lockdown, allowing the hospitality industry to tentatively open its doors once again.
We are already noticing a bounce back with many restaurants and bars fully booked until July; new research shows bookings in the hospitality sector rose by 105% on the opening weekend of 16th April.
The retail industry is having similar success, with the latest research from the CBI lobby group revealing record growth in sales since 2018 for Britain’s biggest retailers.
This comes as a welcome relief to businesses such as ours - Virgin Experience Days - that remained closed during the each of the last year's lockdown periods. As a leading provider of gift experiences, Virgin Experience Days saw many of its providers completely shut or significantly pivot their offerings during the numerous lockdowns. This naturally led to a spike in customer enquiries at the start of each lockdown.
The pandemic presented customer service teams with a ‘fight or flight’ scenario. Some companies thrived in the face of adversity, fast tracking remote working and introducing advanced technologies within their customer service teams. Others entered a period of total shut down, closing call centres and furloughing all staff during one of the most unpredictable and turbulent periods in living memory.
At Virgin Experience Days, we recognised very early on that customer service would be key to business survival.
That meant being completely accountable to our customers, particularly during what was deemed a period of crisis, and this led us to transform our operations.
Transforming our customer service for the pandemic era
We went into 2020 on the back of our best ever Christmas trading period, and then COVID happened. We had to significantly pivot our customer service offering to respond to the crisis and keep customers happy. To do this successfully, feedback from customers was invaluable - transformation was driven by a combination of front-line support teams and by customers.
We recognised very early on that customer service would be key to business survival.
We adapted to the new lockdown restrictions by offering our customers free extensions so they could enjoy their experience gifts at a time that suited them. Pre-COVID we charged a £20 fee for extensions but now customers can self-serve on either a 6- or 12-month extension. 95% of customers took advantage of this, with between 4,000 and 8,000 making use of the free extensions every week.
We also made the switch to a digital-only customer offering which has been effective in reducing duplicate contacts, prioritising customer queries and increasing operational efficiency with a smaller team. Our objective was to ensure the business was fully operational remotely. A customer service without phone lines has always been an ambition of ours, and that was realised and expedited during the pandemic.
COVID-19 forced us to fundamentally change how we work by adapting to a remote policy, but we ensured that no one lost their jobs and kept customers happy in the process. Our customer satisfaction (CSAT) score is now the highest it has ever been and all our digital and customer service scores are better than ever. These achievements haven’t gone unrecognised, as Virgin Experience Days were recently awarded Gold in the ‘Responding in Crisis’ category at the Customer Service Awards.
A catalyst for innovation
Whilst the adaptation of our customer service was key to business survival, the focus wasn’t purely on staying afloat. It presented an opportunity to develop the business further across all areas, whilst empowering the customer during a very uncertain period.
Following the Government’s March 2020 announcement and the imposition of lockdown, any pre-booked experiences were cancelled, meaning refund requests came flooding in by the thousands.
We didn’t want to go into preservation mode, so we kept the emphasis on innovation and entrepreneurship. We quickly pivoted our product strategy to develop and source over 150 new products from both new and existing suppliers – for example, new digital versions of existing experiences that can be enjoyed remotely such as online cocktail making tutorials. These contributed 15% of sales through lockdown.
The role of leadership
Good leadership is vital in transforming customer service. C-suite executives must take an active role in customer service and ensure a customer-centric focus is integrated across every level of their organisation. Studies have shown 64% of companies with a customer-focused CEO deliver high quality customer service and increased financial success.
Pre-booked experiences were cancelled, meaning refund requests came flooding in by the thousands
Within 48 hours, leadership ensured that every person at Virgin Experience Days had a laptop, remote access and training on how to work from home. We set frameworks and objectives for each team with regular planned catchups.
We surveyed the team asking how they thought we handled our COVID response and achieved a company confidence score of 84%.
Keeping customers happy
It goes without saying, customers are our most important asset. Of course, customers can be your biggest champions or harshest critics, with both sides of the coin equally important for business development and long-term success.
Ultimately, your customer base will drive financial revenue, making customer service a crucial investment for any company: a massive 96% of customers state they would avoid a business as a result of bad customer service.
The importance of customer service is clear, 68% of customers said it only takes one bad service experience to reduce loyalty, with about 73% of consumers admitting they will stop doing business with a brand after three or fewer negative customer service experiences, according to a recent survey from Coveo. These statistics highlight why the customer service transformation of Virgin Experience Days was so vital to our survival during COVID.
The pandemic has put pressure on customer service teams across a variety of industries and in a number of ways unimaginable 12 months ago. But it has also highlighted its importance for businesses staying afloat, and revealed that the key to good customer service is innovation, strong team support, collaboration and leadership.
Danni leads customer experience, product development, partnerships and the people strategy for Virgin Experience Days and Virgin Incentives.
Her career spans several industries including travel, retail and outdoor education. During her career she has developed a passion for team engagement, having seen the positive impact that a highly...