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How to Empower Your Customer Service Reps, Richard Branson Style

Richard Branson Virgin CEO

Virgin America is well-known for being the first airline to offer fleetwide Wi-Fi, touch-screen in-flight entertainment and mood lighting its planes. But above all, Virgin prides itself on one thing: exceptional customer service. In fact, it has been named “Top Domestic Airline” in the Travel + Leisure World’s Best Awards readers’ survey every year since its launch in 2007.

Carmine Gallo, communications coach and author of The Apple Experience: Secrets to Insanely Great Customer Loyalty, recently interviewed Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson for Forbes. In the piece, Branson shared one of the keys to Virgin’s legendary service: empowering employees to solve problems and make every customer experience memorable. So I decided to find out what tactics companies can use to empower their own customer service reps, Richard Branson style.

I caught up with Gallo, Virgin America’s Public Relations and Events Manager Patricia Condon and customer service expert Chris DeRose, co-author of Judgment on the Front Line: How Smart Companies Win by Trusting Their People, to discover which tactics managers can use to empower their employees. I also found testimonials from actual employees and customers of Virgin America and its pond-crossing companion, Virgin Atlantic, on Yelp, Glassdoor and Trustpilot to provide examples of them in action.

Tactic #1: Give employees the freedom to make decisions within a “judgment playing field.”

“Virgin trusts its employees to do the right thing,” says Gallo. “Leaders must empower their staff to do what is right for the customer, even if they break policy from time to time (as long as it doesn’t endanger anyone, of course!).”

This freedom to make decisions—within safe boundaries–is what DeRose calls operating within a “judgment playing field.” Senior management must specifically define where front-line employees are and aren’t allowed to deviate from established rules and processes—and then must give them the flexibility to experiment with new ways for serving customers.

For example, maybe employees can try creating new product displays, but they can’t get creative with food safety and handling procedures. Once employees know the basic framework for testing their new ideas, they are empowered to think for themselves and explore the service opportunities they see every day on the front lines of customer interaction.

Giving your reps the freedom to make their own decisions about what customers need inspires innovation and creativity—often to the customer’s benefit. In this Yelp review, the customer described a scenario where a flight attendant noticed the traveler had a cold, and brought him an Olbas Oil cup:

Without a flexible judgment playing field to operate within, the flight attendant may not have been permitted to bring the customer this item, and the customer would have suffered more during the flight as a result.

Tactic #2: Empower reps to work together to serve the customer better

Instead of leaving decisions in the hands of senior management, leaders should empower their reps to work together to find solutions to customer problems and devise methods for serving customers more efficiently and effectively.

The best way to encourage this, says Gallo, is to “reward and praise teams for collaboration.” In Branson’s own words: “lavish praise on people and they will flourish. Criticize and they will shrivel up.” During their interview, Gallo says, Branson heard about a flight team in another airport that provided great service to passengers whose flight had been delayed. “Branson’s assistant dialed a number, handed him the phone and he verbally praised the team listening on a speakerphone at the other end. Can you imagine how they felt to get a call from Branson himself? [He] praises daily.”

Gallo also emphasizes the importance of managers leading by example when it comes to collaboration, a point which DeRose agrees on. Senior leaders, DeRose says, should visually map out the entire customer service life cycle for their company, in order to understand the multiple interactions that comprise a customer’s experience. “When leaders and those delivering service can see the big picture,” he says, “it encourages better teamwork.”

In this Yelp review, the customer noticed that Virgin Atlantic flight attendants were actively working together to provide better service:

These employees understood that in order to effectively service all customers during a busy flight, they would need to look at the big picture, and communicate and collaborate with one another to ensure that all customers’ needs were being met.

Tactic #3: Instill the company’s mission in all staff members to provide a complete customer experience.

Virgin America strives to provide customers with more than just a flight from one destination to another: According to Branson, Virgin is in “the experience business.” Employees of every level and department are encouraged to provide customers with a complete experience, encompassing everything from the greeting they receive at check-in to the service they receive within the mood-lit aircraft.

This idea of selling an experience, not just a product, is catching on. Gallo references internal research shared with him by executives of a large grocery-store chain: “Value used to mean quality and price,” he says. “Today, value is defined as quality, price and experience. Whether people are shopping at a grocery store… or flying with a particular airline, they want an experience.”

To provide customers with an experience that extends to every interaction they have with the company, managers must instill a clearly-defined sense of the company’s mission, culture and values in every member of their support staff.

“Empowerment starts from leadership,” says Gallo. “David Cush, CEO of Virgin America, told me that they give employees the tools to serve the customer, take them through best training and then leave it in the hands of the employees to use their creativity to serve the customer.”

Continually reinforcing training principles and your company’s core values can help keep the mission top-of-mind for employees. At Virgin, Condon says, every employee participates in an annual two-day training course, called “Refresh.” In this course, teammates from all departments of the company participate in workshops on emotional intelligence, conflict resolution, teamwork, etiquette and how to go above and beyond in difficult circumstances. “Refresh” serves as a regular reminder for employees of all departments that their contribution is vital to the customer service experience.

This Trustpilot customer lauded Virgin for the consistency of their service enthusiasm:

And this customer praised a Guest Services employee for going above and beyond to help him out:

This feedback is proof that every interaction is vital to providing a great customer service experience.

Tactic #4: Have an open door policy.

In order to provide legendary customer service, your employees must have an outlet for expressing concerns, asking questions and providing feedback. Managers should encourage them to speak up, and praise them when they do.

For this type of open door policy to work, DeRose says, employees must “trust that managers care about them personally and will have an interest in their ideas,” and they need a “feedback mechanism so that if ideas are shared, the contributing employees understand how their idea was acted upon.” Recognition is key, he says, for motivating employees to keep coming back with suggestions for improvement and feedback on what’s working well.

Virgin, says Condon, “believe[s] great ideas come from all over the company, and ultimately, this leads to employee empowerment.” Not only does the company have an open door policy for addressing employee questions and concerns, they put employee feedback into action. “It was a teammate who suggested having guests without roller bags board the planes in advance of general main cabin boarding as a way to speed [things] up—which we’ve adopted as part of our [boarding] process,” she says.

This Glassdoor review praised Virgin management’s open door policy when it comes to questions and concerns:

As this review demonstrates, when employees know that managers are recognizing their feedback, the company culture is bolstered and the product it provides is strengthened as a result.

Tactic #5: Encourage staff to bring their personalities to work.

Customers don’t like feeling that their service reps are robots. As DeRose says, the old adage of ‘bring your brain to work’ has become ‘bring your personality to work.’ To provide truly exceptional service, managers must encourage their service reps to forge genuine, personal connections with customers, communicating with them just as they would with a friend or colleague.

“‘Genuine’ is a great buzzword today,” DeRose adds. “It’s about revealing part of who we are… and creating slight variance or personalization in service delivery. Most organizations are set up to systematically eliminate this. They write policy and process manuals that give service an assembly-line treatment in the name of consistency and efficiency.”

When managers define a judgment playing field for their employees, DeRose says, they can include guidelines as to what types of interactions are and are not appropriate when dealing with customers. This allows employees the freedom to express themselves and have fun, while remaining polite and respectful of customers. Observing coworkers and managers on the job is a great way for employees to see examples of what’s considered “in-bounds” for customer interactions.

Of course, if you’re encouraging your reps to bring their personalities to the job, you must make sure to hire people who have great personalities. Virgin prides itself on a selective hiring process—according to Gallo, they hire only one out of every 100 people who apply, and the right attitude is a key determinant of who gets the job. This process seems to work, too; in Glassdoor reviews, employees regularly cite having coworkers who enjoy what they do as a top benefit of working for Virgin. For example:

And in this Yelp review, the passenger lauded the staff for their genuine enjoyment in serving customers:

The mission of Virgin America, says Condon, is to “transform the flying experience so that it is fun again.” When employees genuinely enjoy their job and are empowered to be themselves, the customers can feel it—and they enjoy their experience more as a result.

Richard Branson image created by D@LY3D.

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Holly Regan

About the Author

Holly Regan is the Content Editor for Software Advice. Her work has appeared on many notable sites, including The New York Times, PRNews and oDesk. She has also contributed to works on top-tier publications such as Entrepreneur, the Wall Street Journal and Business Insider.

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