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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 14-Jun-09


Sunday 14-June-09

A Virgin failure (and recovery)

What do you do when you experience a service failure? Many people do nothing, which is sad, because it means many more people will be affected. I've just had a rather dreadful experience at the hands of Virgin, a company I have previously admired. I've send a copy of this blog to the CEO.

Sir Richard Branson
Virgin Group
The School House
50 Brook Green
W6 7RR
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 ok.

It was rather worrying that when booking the flight, there was no indication of flight time -- only AM or PM (Second failure).

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 failure).

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 failure).

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:

  1. That I get the sunny flight that my wife intended for me.
  2. That you fix the failures listed, so others will not suffer likewise.
  3. 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 this area.

Many thanks for you kind consideration and I await your response with interest,



Virgin did a decent recovery, which is good. I didn't speak to Richard Branson but I think it was someone high-up, who called to thank me for my suggestions, saying they agreed with many of these and would be implementing them. And of course I would have my balloon flight reinstated.

My faith in Virgin is thus restored. It doesn't take much to recover a customer, even a very unhappy one. All you need to do is show that you care, listen intelligently, and do the right thing.


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