Claire Cronin began her marketing career at Barclays Bank, but moved into the travel industry with NetJets, Europe’s largest private business airline. Next she joined Virgin Holidays as its customer and marketing director in 2014, bringing together customer experience and marketing under the same umbrella.
Early last year, Cronin moved to Virgin Atlantic to become its CMO. We began our exclusive interview by asking her to take us back to that moment when Virgin Airlines decided to make experience its business. (Of note, Cronin will be speaking at Adobe Summit EMEA, in London, 3-4 May.)
Cronin: Our focus on experience dates all the way back to the inception of the company in 1984. Richard Branson believed flight was the most incredible thing that man had ever done, but back then transatlantic flights from the U.K. were often bland and corporate. He looked at the experience that those airlines were offering and felt that there must be something better that Virgin could do. So Virgin started an airline.
The business was predicated on the belief that wherever you sat on the plane, no matter which cabin you’re in, you would have an unbelievable customer experience.
CMO.com: What was the first thing Virgin Atlantic did to incorporate the idea of experience into the business?
Cronin: We started by examining what our customers wanted when they got on board a flight and what value looked like to them. They told us what they valued—nice food and drinks on the plane, and access to great movies to help entertain them.
Originally, there were just two types of cabins on an aircraft—the first-class experience, which we call upper class, and economy. We believed that there was an opportunity to develop a third cabin, called premium economy. It gives customers the opportunity to have a slightly bigger seat and a little more leg room and comfort in the cabin. But it also provided them with more of a fine-dining experience—with a structured three-course meal served on china plates. So we have always been dedicated to understanding what customers value and then delivering against those expectations. That also evolved into providing Wi-Fi across our whole transatlantic fleet, as our customers increasingly want to stay connected while aboard, be it for business or pleasure.
CMO.com: How are you structured internally to make this all possible?
Cronin: We have a dedicated customer experience team that reports in to Mark Anderson, who controls everything that touches our customers, both on and off the flight. All the flight crew and airport staff report to him, while his team also oversees all our data collection.
Our dedicated customer experience division works with all parts of the business to ensure the whole business is built around the four pillars of customer experience, or the four Es.
The first E is for engagement. This ensures we connect with our customers in the right way and personalise what we deliver. We have been working on personalising the content of our customer emails by using [their] previous activity with us as a trigger. So we might say, “Welcome back, Daniel. Would you like to book seat 2A again?”
The second pillar is around excitement. Here we are looking for opportunities to surprise and delight our customers both in the airport and on the flight itself. Years ago, we used to do little things that were quite playful around the salt and pepper shakers, which are the shape of an aircraft. If you turn them over, you’ll also see on the bottom it says, “Pinched from Virgin Atlantic.” We are always looking for things like this to surprise and delight the customers.
The third E is around excellence. This is about creating frictionless, seamless processes across the entire business to make it as easy as possible for the customer to do business with us.
The final pillar is efficiency, which is focused on what the Japanese call “kaizen.” It means continuous improvement. We’re continuously looking at how we manage our processes to strip out any waste because we don’t want to charge the customer a penny more than we have to. We might use savings to provide Wi-Fi or new seating on the plane, or simply pass it back to our customers. Whichever way, they benefit.
CMO.com: Beyond technology, what did you do internally to rally your employees around this notion of placing the customer first?
Cronin: We’ve always placed the customer at the heart of everything that we do. First of all, when it comes to recruiting staff, we look for people who have the same desire as us to care for our customers. We recruit for attitude, and then we train for skill.
Then, once you’re part of the company, we adhere to the six Virgin brand group values—providing heartfelt service, being delightfully surprising, red hot, and straight up, while maintaining an insatiable curiosity and creating smart disruption. And it’s the first one, heartfelt service, where we really place a huge amount of emphasis, not just within the flight crew, but also across all parts of the organisation. We can’t become the most loved airline unless everyone is always operating with the customer’s best interests at heart.
CMO.com: How does this trickle down to the staff on the front line?
Cronin: All our frontline staff are given feedback on their performance. We do lots of surveys to ensure that we are responding to our customers’ needs, then feed this back to our cabin crew. We equip them with the data to understand how they’ve performed and where there might be some scope for improvement. We provide constant feedback after every flight to ensure that staff continue to optimise and improve the experience for our customers.
CMO.com: How are you measuring success within the business?
Cronin: Every year we survey the company’s entire staff. We ask them a range of questions about how proud they feel working for the airline, how they feel to put the customer at the heart of what they do, and if we are helping them work in a way that enables them to give the highest level of customer service.
We also have a range of operational KPIs that include customer satisfaction. We strongly believe that complacency is the root cause of mediocrity, so we are always looking to continually raise the bar, even when our customers say they are delighted. We know, all the time, our competition is increasing from all directions—from low-cost carriers such as Norwegian, to Emirates, which has a huge budget to spend on its customers. That’s why we are consistently saying: “That might have been great, but it isn’t going to be good enough for tomorrow.”
CMO.com: What can we expect in the future, experience-wise?
Cronin: We are working on a very exciting project, which is all around reimagining the economy experience for the customers at the back of the plane, who make up the majority of our customers. This is becoming increasingly important, especially for Millennials, who want to travel cheaply, be it for business or pleasure, so that they’ve got money to spend at the other end. Our aim is to make it the best experience available at 38,000 feet.