Virgin Atlantic: how one of my Lovemarks hurt me today.

Knowing I would be tight for time this morning after returning from a film premier in Harrogate, I tried to check in online last night for Virgin Atlantic VS003 to New York, but Virgin Atlantic’s website was broken.

As predicted this morning I was cutting it fine for time and tried to check-in online again; a similar problem, I couldn’t check-in. An online error.

Undeterred I ran on to the Heathrow Express, through Terminal 3 up to a Virgin Atlantic check-in terminal, to arrive right on the one-hour before departure deadline.

All the terminals were out of order.

The Human Touch

Five minutes later I was speaking to a service agent who was trying to be helpful.

Realising I was hand-luggage only she said it would probably be OK and she spent five minutes trying to get through on the phone to someone. Finally getting through, before she could even explain I was hand-luggage only, she was told the flight was closed and I wasn’t allowed through.

This was strange as it was before 9:55am. This is significant because Upper Class check-in closes 40 minutes before departure although today (courteous of a client) I am travelling cattle class; the economy check-in closes 60 minutes before departure.

It was only 9:45am (50 minutes before wheels up) so the flight could not have been closed because if it were Upper Class passengers would not be able to check-in.

The helpful desk agent apologised, looking a little perplexed.

I always try hard not to take it out on staff at the coal-face. Often these days they don’t have the authority or decision making power to help you (that by the way is another business problem I discuss here.)

So, off I go to the ticket desk to get pushed on to the later flight at 2pm (which incidentally is a nightmare for me because with only five hours in New York before flying on to Dallas, my stop over and meetings are ruined).

Show Me The Money

Andrea a pleasant South American chap says the good news is that they can put me on the next flight VS045, but at a cost of £120. I protest politely but Andrea can’t do anything.

He asks his manager. Computer says no.

I ask at least if I could have my favourite seat in economy. No. I’ll need to pay for that too.

May be at least then, Virgin Atlantic will grant me as a Silver Flying Club member ( soon to be Gold) lounge access so I can have the New York meetings I will miss somewhere quiet on Skype? No.

Err, OK. Can I pay for lounge access? No.

I keep calm despite my frustration and seek out the Virgin Atlantic floor manager, who I’m told does have the power to grant lounge access.

After politely waiting for her to finish dealing with a staff issue (a quick gossip about another staff member) I start to explain, but she cuts me off mid-explanation:

“We don’t give lounge access unless you’re Upper Class?” …her intonation is as though I’m asking the location of the holy grail. She’s all out of empathy today then and it’s only 9:45am. I pity the afternoon customers.

Practicalities

By 10.05am (the flight takes off at 10.35am) I have:

  • Queued to pay the extra charges to bump flights
  • Complained to the delightfully unhelpful floor manager
  • Gone through security
  • Am sat in Chez Gerard (another brand I have a history with) and have just ordered breakfast.

The fact I’ve done all this and the gate is yet to even close irritates me further, but thankfully Chez Gerard deliver on my brand expectations this morning: A warm polite welcome, good coffee, warm perfectly crispy croissants and soothing music.

Has this every happened before?

Those who know me will know I try and pack a lot into my life. That means sometimes I’m late. On the whole it is of course my own fault if I’m late, in so far as we are all responsible for our own decisions and planning.

Similarly it is definitely a passenger’s own responsibility to check-in by the deadline set; but it is also a brands responsibility to deliver on the service which customers rely on and arguably especially your regular customers.

  • I knew I would be short on time, so I tried to check in online. Twice. The web site was broken.
  • Then I tried at terminal 3, within the 60 minute limit, but the kiosks were broken.
  • The check-in clerk recognised the situation and asked to send me through, but was prevented by someone else.
  • The flight couldn’t have been closed, I only had hand luggage and were I Upper Class I’d have sailed through.
  • The ticket agent recognised the problem, but had to charge me anyway (he even left notes on my account to that affect)
  • The Virgin Atlantic manager was abrupt and had a naive approach to customer relations (perhaps how she got to be a manager..!)

Good customer service is about recognising a customer’s problem and empathising. That should be true whatever level of customer the person is.  Today’s $1000 customer may be tomorrow’s $1b customer.

More importantly, monetary value is not the only consideration. Some customers affect more influence regarding your brand than others, as my post here about the new economy of influence explains.

I do not expect any brand to do the impossible.

I recognise a flight has to close at some point, no matter who wants to get on board, but when rules are adhered to via blind process (or in order to make a quick buck, like Ryan Air) rather than for logic or good reason, that pisses me off.

And I’m going to tell people. Lot’s of people.

Brands become lovemarks for me because they exercise effort, common sense and actively behave as though they genuinely care about me – even though I realise it is in order to make a profit from me.

Pret (the British chain of sandwich shops) are a superb example of this. From their always polite staff, to sending a customer £70 for payment of his “time using the Pret brand”, to letting me off £3.45 for my lunch when I realised I’d left my wallet in the office (I repaid the £3.45 the next day) they always make me feel cared about. I also feel that the employees are empowered to make their own decisions and understand what the Pret brand stands for.

In the past I’ve found Virgin Atlantic to be more pragmatic than I have today. On top of this, I must have flown 15+ times with Virgin Atlantic in the last 3 years from London to San Francisco. I have a Founders Card which gives a discount (although I’ve yet to claim it) and I’ve met Richard a couple of times.

As a brand the important thing to realise is these things make my experience today all the worse not better.

Why? Because if you are dating someone for a month and they do something unpleasant, it hardly touches the sides. You can laugh about it in the pub with friends.

If you are dating someone for 10 years and you love them, then they do a similarly unpleasant thing, you can’t laugh about it. It hurts. It goes against your expectation and trust.

Loyal customers with your brand, which may be a Lovemark to them, are no different.

It’s ALL about me.

These brand ambassadors will sing your praises, but they’ll also be the first to call you out.

  • They’ll get very pissed off, very quickly.
  • They feel they should be treated differently.
  • They feel they should be treated with extra care.

“Should” is the key word here.

Actually ALL customers should be treated with extra care; but what matters here is how these people feel, not the reality.

Your job with your brand is to manage your customer’s perception of a situation without pouring petrol on the fire.

Preferably, you want to be the guy wielding the fire extinguisher and without spraying it in your customers face.

The psychology of loyal customers

I buy in to the “poor little Virgin Atlantic” versus nasty British Airways myth because I choose to, not because I necessarily believe it.

It feeds my potential pleasure of a brand I generally enjoy.

It adds to my personal identity to associate myself with e.g. Virgin Atlantic, instead of British Airways. Therefore:

When you as a brand behave poorly I feel you’re attacking not just me as a customer but me as your brand.

Your bad performance means subconsciously I feel like I’ve performed badly, because a little bit of your brand has become me.

What is this lovemark stuff again?

The simplest definition of when a brand becomes a lovemark to a customer is when they make irrational decisions to choose that brand over another.

I’ve often in true Lovemark tradition gone against logic when booking my flights. Virgin Altantic are usually more expensive and I had an unlucky run in the mid 2000’s where seemingly every flight I went on had no entertainment system working. Until my last flight, I recently had a run of crappy seat locations, whatever class I was in.

Despite this I stayed with Virgin Atlantic; but now I feel like our relationship is on the rocks; but hey, as they say, better to have loved and lost than never loved at all.

The moral of the story is that a Lovemark is a double edged sword, both for the company and customer.

Handle with care Mr Branson, and now I’m off to get my VS045 flight.

I Love You, I Hate You: The New Influence Economy

The world of customer relationship management and brand management is changing fast; again. This is going to be a shock to many companies.

Some businesses have only just started to remember that their customers might actually be right, others have only just got their heads around CRM and being “online”. Others continue blindy on trying to save money by passing the leg work on to their customers and annoying us all in the process.

Entering your mobile number at a call centre in a cue, only to be asked it three more times once you get through, is just one great example.

Rude retail staff, telephone operatives and n employees who can’t speak basic English or empathise with customers are others.

The Enlightenment: 2011

The more progressive companies are waking up to the new economy of influence – better known as social media.

Klout and PeerIndex as businesses both exist for a reason. They purport to measure “influence”.

The passionate and vocal devotees (or detractors) of your brand online are fast becoming the kingpins of the next 10 years of successful brand building.

Ratings scores like Klout and Peerindex will become a new currency in a world of social networking, online endorsement, virality and brand reputation. Even some credit score companies are already experimenting these scores in to account and providing third parties this data alongside traditional scoring methods.

Brands need to wake up fast to the fact that the price of a ticket is no longer necessarily the most reliable indicator of the “spending power” of a customer.

Klout and Peerindex scores are fast becoming the standards of "reputation" online; but how do they compare and what do they really mean? It's early days...

What is the on-going endorsement worth of a customer with an influence score of 59 but who travels economy, worth over an Upper Class passenger who keeps quiet and never endorses your brand?

I don’t have the right answer, but it’s certainly the right question.

Who do you think you are?

I’ve flown with Virgin Atlantic since my first ever transatlantic flight age 22, to sunny Los Angeles. Since then I’ve been a devotee; but as this article attests, last time I flew I was very disappointed.

I’m was left wondering if my friend Milo had been with me, whether I’d have had the same experience.

That time around a train had broken down or something, but despite my arriving very late we sailed through check-in just 30 minutes before departure and were upgraded, although at least he had got there on time. I however, had not, nor was I checked in. The difference is, at the time he was working for The Telegraph.

However in my own way to my own audience – and certainly in my industry – I have some influence:

  • I write for WIRED and do guest blog posts
  • My Klout score is reasonable as is my PeerIndex score.
  • I’ve invited friends to join Virgin Miles.
  • I can identify specifically at least 25 people who I’ve directly influenced to fly VA over other airlines in the last 24 months, because Virgin Atlantic has been a lovemark of mine.

As with most things we love, we naturally endorse them and want them to prosper. They represent part of me. As I said in this post about brand relationships and lovemarks:

.. when you as a brand [a lovemark] behave poorly I feel you’re attacking not just me as a customer but me as your brand.  Your bad performance means subconsciously I feel like I’ve performed badly, because a little bit of your brand has become me.

It is true that influence scores have their problems and on these the two specific companies mentioned (here’s another bloggers overview of PeerIndex and Klout) although they are the current market leaders, the jury is still out.

The Context of Influence Matters

Who are they the influencers of? If I have 10,000 followers on twitter who are all unemployed, or worse all spambot fake accounts, how influential is that? ..the answer is of course not very.

Both services (PeerIndex top radar image, Klout bottom list) try to work out WHAT I'm influential about. Klout lists me as influential about "Germany" ... clearly there is still some work to be done!

These things are changing though. They are becoming more sophisticated. This is inevitability; they will become more accurate.

Smell the coffee anyway

Consider where we are today in reputation scores as the AM radio of the early 20th Century; rough, low fidelity, all a bit hit and miss. We’re not going to have to wait 100 years for it to improve before we get to DAB digital Stereo radio. Try 5 years.

So listen up Virgin Atlantic when next time you give me crappy service, or maybe I’ll respond to that Executive Club email from British Airways, or maybe I’ll send tweets, or write a blog post. The inherent viral nature of social media means these outbursts can have disproportionate impact.

Not significant perhaps you might think, given that I’m just one passenger and I’ve probably only taken nudging thirty transatlantic flights in my life; and they weren’t even all Upper Class?

However, you must also consider the influence of the people I influence

To fully measure influence you need not just context but to understand the TRUE reach of an influencer. That becomes both computationally challenging and inherently hard.

What is my endorsement for the next 15 year’s worth to your brand?

What is it worth to your competition?

If your company’s brand does not get its head around the new economy of influence now, you’re at best missing an opportunity and at worst inviting persistent damage to your reputation; and therefore your profits.

On the horizon are even more advanced interpretations of brand popularity which take the influence of individuals and brands, combine it with a sentiment for popularity, public opinion or value within a virtual currency and publish it for all to see. Empire Avenue is just one of these new indexes, entirely virtual in nature based upon 1000′s of peoples social networks, virtual investments and reputation.

Microsoft is using Empire Avenue to profile the popularity of it's Xbox brand in Empire Avenues Social Stock Market

Brand ambassadors are the future of your business and will disproportionality impact your bottom line – that fact is here to stay.