|Sir Richard Branson
The School House
50 Brook Green
14 June 2009
Dear Sir Richard
Ever since I bought Tubular Bells whilst a student in 1973 I have followed
the admirable development of Virgin. As a later student and practitioner
in business I have also read your books and admired your inspirational
leadership. It is therefore with regret that I must report a lamentable
and repeated lapse in service by Virgin Balloon Flights. My faith in this
company has been so shaken, I am writing to you directly. Some of the
failures below may seem small to you, but they were all instrumental.
My wife bought me a balloon ride as a special present, which gave me
months of delighted anticipation before I decided to book the flight this
month. I phoned the number in the letter and got through to someone who
told me that the booking people were busy but someone would phone back.
Nobody did. (First failure). I consequently
found the website and was able to book online, so I thought it would be
It was rather worrying that when booking the flight, there was no
indication of flight time -- only AM or PM (Second
In the information after booking and in the identical email received,
there was an instruction to phone 'from 11pm the night before your
flight'. Please note the 'from' and the omission of 'between' hours. (Third
Now I work long hours, getting up early for a 2 hour commute into London.
By 10pm and often earlier, I am out for the count. I worried about the
ambiguous instruction but resolved to get up early to find the flight
details. I rose before 6am and called the number, only to find that I was
supposed to be in Henley, about 20 minutes away, for 6am. I called the
emergency number given, only to get a message saying that this was an old
number and telling me to call another number, which I did, only for it to
ring and ring with no answer (Fourth failure).
As you might guess, I was very disappointed by this. It was a perfect
morning. I am a keen photographer and the light was just right.
I called the main Virgin Balloons number to find that it opened at 10am. I
called back then and told my story to the person, only to be cut off as I
completed it. I called again and spoke to somebody else, who persisted in
telling me things that I should have done, like phone after 11pm. This is
a dreadful method: when a customer is unhappy, telling them what they
should have done will only make them more unhappy (Fifth
She told me that she would investigate, but warned that I would lose any
future opportunity if the pilot confirmed that the flight took place. I
had already told her it was a beautiful day and this only served to
frustrate me further, though I bit my lip and just asked her not to tell
me all the things I should have done, but to tell me what she was going to
do about it. She said she would call back the same day and I gave her two
numbers for this, asking her to leave a message at my home number if she
couldn't get through on the mobile (I had by now gone out for the day to
cheer up). By now, I was not surprised that when I got home there was no
message. (Sixth failure).
Will they get back to me? Experience says no, and my faith in Virgin
Balloon Flights has so completely shaken, I am writing directly to you.
I have wondered if any of it was my fault. The service representative told
me that there was indication of times in the brochure, which I later found
to be true. But consider the customer journey here. I read the booklet
last Christmas, but when booking the flight only referred to the letter
enclosed with the booklet and the information I saw online and received in
the subsequent email. In no place along this recent route was there any
indication of actual or potential flight times.
In 'Business Stripped Bare' you state as your proposition that 'we
offer our customers a Virgin experience, and we make sure that this Virgin
experience is a substantial and consistent one, across all sectors of our
business'. I believe you. I believe this is what you intend, and that
my experience with Virgin Balloon Flights is an exception. I will ask
three things of you to demonstrate this:
- That I get the sunny flight that my wife intended for me.
- That you fix the failures listed, so others will not suffer
- That you fix the system that led to these failures.
In this, I would ask that your service representatives are not punished,
but that they are properly trained in handling unhappy customers. I would
also suggest that you do a detailed process review, examining in detail
the customer's experiential journey, particularly when things go wrong.
Customer experience design is critical for many modern businesses, along
with the process, technology and organisation that create this. As a core
element of your brand, I do hope you have a strong and deep competence in
Many thanks for you kind consideration and I await your response with