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It’s rare to find a leader who elevates the experience for employees and customers to such a degree that other brands benchmark against his or her company. I recently had a unique opportunity to spend a day with one such leader, an entrepreneur and billionaire who has built a brand considered the gold standard in customer service—Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson.
I accompanied Branson on Virgin America’s first flight from Los Angeles to Las Vegas and spent time with him on the ground, as well as Virgin America CEO David Cush. The experience gave me an up-close and personal view of how Branson interacts with employees and his to see his leadership philosophy in action. I learned that Branson lives and breathes customer service.
As you will see in the following video, every action Branson takes and every work he speaks—whether the cameras are on or off—reflect his commitment to creating an exceptional experience for both his customers and employees.
Here are 7 lessons that any leader can and should adopt if they hope to build a successful company.
1. Be visible. Richard Branson says, “A good leader doesn’t get stuck behind a desk.” Branson is always on the move, meeting employees, talking to cabin crews, and soliciting feedback from passengers. He’s constantly asking for their opinions and he keeps a notebook of the ideas and the feedback he’s received. Branson believes that a leader’s creativity is nourished in the time he or she spends out of the office and in the field, talking to customers about their experience and asking employees for their opinion on how to serve the customer even better.
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I told Branson about a conversation I had with Starbucks SBUX +0.81% CEO Howard Schultz. “Coffee is what we sell as a product, but it’s not the business we’re in,” said Schultz. I turned the statement into a question for Branson.
“What business is Virgin in?” I asked. The experience business, he replied. “Anybody can sell a cup of coffee. Anyone can buy an airplane and we all buy planes from the same manufacturers (Boeing BA -0.20% or Airbus), but there the difference stops. If you fly on a Virgin plane…you know you’re going to have a completely different experience.”
3. Your company’s employees are its greatest assets. According to Branson, the features and amenities Virgin America offers such as mood lighting, leather seats, newer planes and seatback entertainment systems are all part of the package, and while the package might entice customers to give the product a try, the quality of the interaction they have with Virgin’s employees encourages them to return.
Branson says quality interactions between leadership, staff, and customers separate the average company from the exceptional one in any category. Branson told me,
“When we started Virgin Atlantic thirty years ago we had one 747 and we were competing with airlines that had an average of 300 planes each. Every single one of those airlines have gone bankrupt because they didn’t have customer service. They had might, but they didn’t have customer service. Customer service is everything in the end.”
4. Hire people who have the Virgin attitude. Virgin America is very selective, hiring only about 1 out of 100 people who apply. Those who make it are competent, friendly, and committed to providing customers with a superior level of service. Virgin America CEO, David Cush, told me that the airline seeks out people who are positive, friendly, and who see life as “glass half-full.” Finding the right people is 90 percent of the battle, he says.
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The Virgin America hiring attitude reminds me of something I learned while researching the Apple Retail Store for my book, The Apple Experience. I learned that Apple values a magnetic personality as much as, if not more than, proficiency. As one manager put it, “I can teach you to sell an iPad. I can’t teach you to be friendly.”
Hiring friendly, positive people is the first step in building The Apple Store’s exceptional customer service reputation, as it is with Virgin America. When a company hires great people, other great people want to work there, too. A few weeks ago on a flight from San Francisco to Orlando I met a Virgin America pilot who greeted passengers at the gate, introduced himself and told us about the flight. I pulled him aside and casually asked him about Virgin America and why he likes to work there. He told me he had left another airline after 18 years precisely because Virgin America had such a strong reputation in serving the customer and he wanted to be part of it. “We’re really a customer service company that’s operating an airline,” he said.
5. Empower your employees to solve problems and to make every experience great. Once you hire the right people and give them the best training, let them use their imagination and creativity to solve problems. “Empowerment is a very important concept at Virgin America. Team members are not only empowered to satisfy customers, they are publicly rewarded when they do. For example, during a fog delay in San Francisco, one Virgin America in-flight team took it upon themselves to bring the first class drink cart out to the gate. Waiting passengers were offered complimentary cocktail service before they boarded the plane. Those team members received a call from Richard Branson himself, congratulating them for finding a creative solution and keeping their customers happy. Branson says it’s important to lavish praise on people and I discovered that Branson goes out of his way to recognize even the smallest efforts.
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6. Engage in social media with a genuine voice. Branson sends out his own Tweets. He doesn’t delegate his Twitter account (@RichardBranson). Virgin America itself has three full-time social media employees who respond to nearly every customer comment and question on Twitter, whether its positive or negative, and they do so 24 x 7. All Virgin America planes have WiFi, so it’s not unusual for people to be texting in the air. If they contact @virginamerica, there’s a good chance they will receive a response before they land. After one flight I realized that I had left a file folder in the seat pocket. I entered a grocery store on a Sunday afternoon, tweeted my problem to Virgin America (not expecting a response on Sunday) and received a very specific suggestion by the time I left with my groceries thirty minutes later. This experience tells me that Virgin America doesn’t use social media simply to pitch marketing messages. There are real people behind those Twitter posts. They are engaging their customers with fun, genuine, and helpful conversations.
7. Have fun. Don’t take yourself too seriously. As part of its recruiting process Virgin America looks for people who are smart, capable, enthusiastic, and who have a sense of humor. Their boss shares all those qualities, especially the sense of humor. Branson is up for anything and his employees love to see it. He has fun and so do they. After we landed in Las Vegas, Branson gladly took off his leather jacket and put on a sequined pilot’s jacket and hat, as he was surrounded by showgirls. He then started singing, “come fly with me.” Branson is known for stunts, of course, and you don’t have to propel off buildings or wear silly outfits to have fun. It works for Branson because it’s an authentic part of his personality.
Be true to yourself, but don’t be afraid to let your hair down every once in a while. If you have fun, so will your employees, and your customers will notice.