I was a Virgin virgin

For many years I locked myself into one airline’s frequent flyer programme, using its partners whenever I wasn’t actually flying to the US.  The service wasn’t bad, but it was far from brilliant.The mileage programme was worth sticking to, as we did get some great family holidays out of it over the years, and it did its job for the airline by keeping me coming back again and again.

For my latest trip, I discovered that all ‘my’ airline’s options involved flying the Atlantic on a narrow-bodied, single-aisle aircraft that was not originally designed for extended range operations over water.  Aside from that cabin configuration being my idea of purgatory, for an eight-plus hour flight, I learned that these aircraft had to make minimum fuel declarations (but not fuel emergencies) to air traffic control a hundred times or so each year.

Taking all that into account, I looked around for the best alternative deal and booked my trip with Virgin Atlantic. I make no secret of my view that, the larger the company, the harder it is to provide consistently great customer service on all fronts.  Virgin Atlantic isn’t huge, but it’s certainly not a small operation.  So, despite all the advertising hype, my expectations were not that high.

From the moment I made my seat choice and checked in online my expectations were greatly exceeded, and that experience was confirmed every step of the way.  Being fairly cynical, I think I can see through a painted-on smile, but everyone from baggage drop, to the gate, to the in-flight service just seemed to be genuinely enjoying what they were doing.  I never once had to think: oh well, anyone’s entitled to a bad day once in a while.  The customer service was just seamless.  This was an economy trip, but I found the service in the back more than acceptable.  Virgin’s meal service and entertainment facilities simply showed my regular airline the art of the possible.

The most encouraging lesson from Virgin Atlantic though, was that it is clearly possible to maintain a small company feel for customer service even in a fairly large organisation.  The boss has a high profile and makes his ethos very well known, and that must be flowing down through the structure with no discontinuities.  I believe that the reason that it goes wrong so often in big companies is that a management layer develops that is neither directly interfacing with customers, nor top management.  All it then takes for the plot to be lost is for the people in one management layer to stop caring about the customer performance that’s being provided by the layers below them in the hierarchy.  Big companies that want to live up to their advertising (banks please note!) simply need to pay attention to to that top to bottom continuum.  All too often those in the boardroom seem to be blissfully unaware of the customer experience they’re providing.  Either they believe their own adverts or they simply don’t care.

Virgin Atlantic currently has a highly visible dispute with its pilots.  That’s bound to happen occasionally, particularly when the industry as a whole is struggling with obvious economic problems.  I hope it’s sorted out soon, and long may Virgin Atlantic continue to show the way with its customer service!

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