Like a Virgin

I was recently flying Virgin America on my way home from NYC. I usually check my watch just as the gates are about to close, to see if we’re leaving on time and the next phase countdown for the journey. In this instance, as I looked down, there was no watch.

This watch was the very first “big” present my now-husband, then-boyfriend ever gave me, and I figured out pretty fast that it must still be back at the security checkpoint. I first thought to myself, “there’s no way” to solve this problem and was about to rehearse the line in my head to explain to my husband about this loss. Which is when it occurred to me that the story wasn’t right if I said that I realized it right before the plane took off. I figured my husband would think I hadn’t tried hard enough to get it back and that seemed just … wrong.

And, so I at least wanted to ask for help (knowing full well the odds of actually getting this situation solved for were next to nothing because there are so many rules involved). I first went to head steward and ultimately to the pilot to ask if they could help me out. The pilot listened to me explain the story of the watch and how we were approaching our 10-year-wedding anniversary and how it was the longest relationship I’ve ever had, and I didn’t want to lose this thing before the anniversary.

The pilot listened to my little paragraph of story, and my plea. And then he said that he’d been married “for way longer than that”, smiled at me in an impish way, and just said, “run!”. To which, I did.

By the time I covered the half a mile or so to security, they knew who the running-lady was and what she was coming to get because some behind-the-scenes people had phoned ahead. I got a nice bit of fitness on the way back to the plane, too, because I knew my bag and everything was on that flight. And, as I returned, the pilot and staff led the entire plane full of people to clap for the “fast run”. By then, most now knew who had delayed their departure and why. I got some high fives, but also some dirty looks from people. I turned red, and sat down while the plane took off.

But the story doesn’t end there. After a few minutes, I logged onto Twitter and thanked the handle of @virginamerica and the CEO @richardbranson and in short 140-character bursts shared the story. The person manning @VirginAmerica wrote right back and it was clearly a social exchange of me asking for help, then getting it, and me appreciating them. I had made a mistake that was independent of Virgin, and in my authentic owning of my story, I didn’t get treated as a number or a case file, I got treated as a person.

Now, United had the opposite response when they lost a 10-year-old at the airport, and the person who ended up solving the situation had to go off-duty in her role at United, to return to the situation as a mom. She could do more as an ordinary citizen than she could as an employee. Think about that one for a minute. It becomes clear as you understand both stories, one organization insists that policies are bigger than people, that procedure trumps intelligence, and that caring isn’t part-n-parcel of the package.

Because so many of us travel, we can easy to see the humanness or lack-thereof in airline stories. In this case, Virgin did right and United did less so.

But the lesson applies for all of us. All of us get measured by how we relate to people. It’s no longer about “that brand” it’s about who at that brand took responsibility and acted responsibility and in a real way. In other words, we are measured by how social we are. This shifts act away from policies and simple mindless act of following them, but about people who represent the whole organization in simple acts, using their best judgment and care.

Leaders will often say to me that they give control to those that they believe can take it on. And people share stories left and right about how they deliver when they believe something great is expected of them. These are actually just two sides of one coin – trust. We often make trust about the people – as in, “I trust that person or this person to deliver” but trust can also be built into a fabric of a place – from why we’re there to who we choose to be on the team to what we choose to work on. We can design our organizations through and through to create connections. Everyone can make judgments on behalf of a company in a way that aligns everyone to the shared whole. This is going to be the new-normal expectation for organizations and the people in it to thrive.

I have a whole chapter in the new #socialera book about the shift from “capturing” customers to connecting with them. And another on how shared purpose can serve as that alignment system beyond hiring people to do specific jobs.

But Virgin did all of that just by …  doing it. Like a Virgin.

13 Responses:

  1. Thomas 'Tom' West. October 18, 2012 at 6:18 am  |  

    We have a friend who worked for a prominent high class hotel who told us that EVERY employee, right down to the lowest grunt, had the authority to take care of any “need” a customer had (I think up to $2500 or something like that), on the spot, without any additional authorization. Mind you, this was not a cheap place to stay, and many businesses probably could not afford to give “that much,” but the concept here is that the company allowed even the lowliest employee the authority to meet the needs of their customers. Needless to say, they probably had “return business” from their visitors.

    Reply
  2. Yapper Girl. October 18, 2012 at 7:15 am  |  

    Great post. Interesting that the social transaction wast started by you, the consumer, who felt empowered to ASK (many don’t, and you almost didn’t either because of the perceived improbability of satisfying the need). Another role of the company in this “new” era is to make it comfortable to ask the first time. Imagine the gift of many customers opening the door to a meaningful engagement like that.

    Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. October 18, 2012 at 9:08 am  |  

      What a great point of view to add. Yes, as consumers feel more powerful, this will only increase.

      Reply
  3. John Dodds. October 18, 2012 at 2:04 pm  |  

    Your Virgin experience tallies with the phiilosophy of the people I know there and I shall make sure they are aware of your experience.

    But, as they well know, I’m never satisifed and it occured to me that a token of their appreciation to your fellow passengers would have been the icing on the cake. It would have been churlish for any of them to begrudge you the opportunity to be reunited with such an important item and, I imagine, the pilot ensured that any lost time was made up.

    However, you do mention some “dirty looks” and I wonder what you think of the idea of some gesture being made by VA to thank their customers for their collaboration in this happy event?

    Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. October 18, 2012 at 2:09 pm  |  

      I think they did by telling some story (I wasn’t there) before I reboarded but I think some customers are still operating from a place of fear — does this mean I’ll be late, etc. That’s conditioning from all sorts of bad experiences, right?

      Thanks for relaying experience. And just to finish the story for your friends, I ended up (again, over Twitter) sharing that a monitor was broken and I hadn’t reported it on the flight out two days prior and they figured out which flight/ which seat and filed the service request — all updating me over twitter. Then to “thank me” for helping them with their plane, they figured out who I was from my twitter handle and dropped $20 into my Virgin Elevate account. We were co-creating the experience of what it means to Fly with Virgin.

      Reply
  4. Dave Kaiser. October 18, 2012 at 2:39 pm  |  

    Awesome story, that’s wonderfully human and humane of them. I’m glad you got your watch, and they held the plane. My hope is that human and humane is the new paradigm for business (old ones die hard, though…)

    Towards the top of my wish list is having a glass of whiskey with Richard Branson and soaking up any wisdom he would care to share.

    Nilofer, are you going to SxSW this year? My panel didn’t get selected, perhaps I’ll get in as a mentor again. What other conferences do you recommend?

    Reply
  5. Brian Flint. October 19, 2012 at 8:23 am  |  

    Nilofer, great story. I have a similar story where we had a complaint that was acted on immediately by an empowered flight attendant. We had a passenger sitting next to us on a cross country flight with strong body odor. When I mentioned it to the flight attendant, she quickly looked at the cabin – there was nowhere to switch us to because the flight was packed – and immediately acknowledged the situation, apologized and offered us a free movie or game access (my son was sitting next to me).

    What makes Virgin exceptional is that they realize that their brand is about the experience and they work very hard at all the elements of it. From the preflight experience to the mood lighting on the plane. The experience with the crew members is not serendipitous – they make an effort to hire people from outside the industry who will enjoy the change of pace.

    As you say, they do it like Virgin.

    Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. October 19, 2012 at 8:38 am  |  

      thanks, Bryan, in #socialera, I say that we can hire based on having a shared purpose not “just” on whether you can do x or y well. clearly Virgin is doing that.

      Reply
  6. Karen Marriner. July 8, 2013 at 2:34 pm  |  

    Funny that you mention United Airlines as the antithesis of Virgin’s customer friendly attitude and actions. Just a few weeks ago my son left his new iPod Touch on a United flight from SFO to Maui. He realized it just as he was stepping off the Jetway. Because we were seated toward the back of the plane, there weren’t many additional passengers behind us. We immediately asked if he could go and retrieve his item and the gate crew said no. They said they would send a crew in to look for it. Ten minutes later, they reported that it was not found. We visited lost and found, we called United, we made an online report, we spoke to the OGG lost and found again, all to no avail. We tried to get info from United about who cleans their planes in Maui, no dice. I spoke to people all over the globe in different call centers, and they all gave me different information. It was very upsetting and probably something that could have been avoided if they’d let him just go get his device. Airplane support staff like cleaners and baggage handlers are notorious for pilfering items and I believe that’s what happened. United, on the other hand, decided to place blame on some other passenger who must have picked it up from the floor on their way off the plane. As they’re landing for a vacation in Maui. I have more faith in humanity than to buy that convenient story. Perhaps if I’d taken to Twitter we might have gotten a better result.

    Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. July 8, 2013 at 2:48 pm  |  

      I’m sorry for your kiddo’s loss and yes, United seems to “follow rules” rather than deliver on an outcome.

      No airline is perfect. Yesterday Virgin showed our flights as on time for the 24 hours after the SF disaster but then 30 minutes before plane is to board, the flight is cancelled. They had to have known that information sooner, so it was a huge inconvenience. At the same time, the gate staff had such a great attitude of trying to help us that it was watching grace in motion.
      (JR and Jenny if I remember correctly at Sea-TAC airport, in case anyone wants to know and give ‘em a high five for me!).

      We shouldn’t have to tweet, et al to get results. I hope companies will build cultures of innovation throughout their organizations that says the outcomes are what we are all paid to deliver on — in this case, creating customers who want to use that airline again and again.

      Reply

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