This year, Virgin Atlantic celebrates its 30th birthday.
From the outset, we’ve used innovation and design to help us bat above our weight, centered on a very simple question that we ask over and over again: ‘How can we make it better?’
Today technology can provide a lot of answers to that question. But technology is not a substitute for customer service. Nor for the way people interact with customers. Technology is an enabler for our people to do better for our customers. Technology has to be great for our people but it also has to be great for our customers. It’s what our customers expect at Virgin Atlantic. So how do we handle innovation?
A Lab for great ideas
Innovation is often widely perceived as an ‘Aha!’ moment. But a structure is needed to help drive innovation. If you ask the right question and you have the right people, ideas will result. But it has to be done in an explicit way rather than just removing yourself to sit in a darkened room.
Virgin Atlantic has created an ideas lab, where we bring together a group of people from different departments. They have offered to get involved because they think they have great ideas, so we set them a series of questions and ask them to get together and solve problems. That creates the opportunity for new ideas.
Identify what doesn't work
But you must also encourage people to fail. I would be disappointed if fewer than half of our ideas fail – because that means we aren’t pushing the boundary enough.
One of the benefits of having 39 airplanes is that we can try things on a small scale. If they work we can learn from the experience and move on to the next stage. The point is not about the ideas that succeed. It’s about the 10 ideas that you may never hear of because they didn’t work. We’ll find the ones that do work by trying the ones that don’t. That’s really important.
For example, for our trial with wearable devices (see our interview with Virgin's Tim Graham from Issue 2 of the IT Review), we didn’t just try Google Glass. We also tried a Sony Smart Watch and a phone. We wanted to gauge the effectiveness of the three devices and see what customers’ reactions to interacting with our people using that device would be.
"Innovation is often widely perceived as an ‘Aha!’ moment. But a structure is needed to help drive innovation. If you ask the right question and you have the right people, ideas will result."
We’re not interested in technology for its own sake. I’ve seen examples where it’s clear that something has been automated that didn’t need to be. The two core questions for us are: how can we help our people give better service to our customers? And how can we give customers the ability to interact with us the way they want to and make their experience better? We must always ask these questions, because then we’ll probably not fall into the trap of building unnecessary or low value-add technology solutions.
It’s also very easy to waste a lot of money chasing technology ideas. The cost of technology is not as expensive as it used to be, but we’re all investing in more things, so total investment is probably higher. At least you can get a lot more done with the same amount.
The industry has come a long way in the 30 years since Richard Branson founded Virgin Atlantic and we’ll continue to look for ways that we can make things better. There’s no shortage of ideas coming through. Our goal as an airline is to explore those ideas, find the cutting edge and see where we can differentiate ourselves.
At the same time, more than ever we need a collective approach to industry standards so we can design ideas that work in multiple airports across multiple fleet types, connecting itineraries across airlines.
This is key to our future ability as an industry and even as an individual carrier to effectively design solutions for our customers. With the involvement of SITA and IATA and other organizations, I’m optimistic that we can continue to make progress, to the benefit of everyone – and particularly our passengers.
Through the glass
The simple objective behind Virgin Atlantic’s trial of Google Glass was to provide customer service staff with information that customers would value, without the agent having to go behind a desk or counter that separates staff from customer.
Once the agent has identified the passenger, he or she can use voice commands or a toggle on the glass to advance to the next screen. All the information normally available at check-in can then be viewed – including flight number, destination, booking reference, seat assignment, frequent flyer status, tier status, weather at destination, ability to change a seat, arrival and departure time, departure gate, delays and so on.
At first customer service staff found it difficult to make eye contact with the customer while also reading the heads-up data. But as the trial continued, staff became more comfortable with the glasses and, rather than showing concern for what data the agent was accessing, customers wanted to try the glasses for themselves and enjoyed the closer interaction.
Empowered and cool
“The opportunity to look at three different form factors to figure out which could be best used in this situation was really helpful in experimenting to decide what makes sense to move forward,” comments Craig Kreeger. “Employees found it comfortable. They felt empowered, they felt cool. Those are all good things.”
Virgin Atlantic’s trial use of Google Glass was part of their consistent strategy to bring staff closer to customers. Interest continues months after the completion of the limited trial, with a number of accolades won – including the Smart Technology Award from The Wearables 2014, jointly with SITA.
“From a technology standpoint, there were issues relating to management of battery life but otherwise we worked our way through the tests to get the technology where we needed it,” continues Kreeger. “As a result we will be rolling out the use of Google Glass as a means of our people interacting with customers.
He’s equally optimistic about the potential of beacon technology. “It’s a cost-effective and simple advance – a platform through which we can extend our service offer to customers and make things better. How successfully we use it is a question of our own creativity. That’s the kind of challenge we thrive on.”
The comment comes in light of Virgin Atlantic’s trials of beacon at London Heathrow Airport, including the ability for passengers using Apple Passbook to find their boarding pass automatically presented on the smartphone as they approach the security scanner.
New features were added every few weeks with the aim of creating different, relevant interactions throughout the entire passenger journey.