There are thousands of airlines but only very few have mastered the passengers’ end to end experience across their website, mobile apps, departure lounges, in-flight experience, in-flight entertainment and overall customer service. With my recent flight to Atlanta I had a chance to verify what I read and heard about Virgin Atlantic, and experience first hand how the company has leveraged service design principles delivering on its brand promise across service touch-points.
On December 1st, I boarded a VA flight from London Heathrow. Before my departure date I already had a Virgin Atlantic app on my smart phone. This allowed me to create a boarding card, select a seat in the Upper Class cabin, or even pre-order meal, duty free shopping or review in-flight entertainment. At Heathrow Terminal 3 I was greeted by a friendly staff that helped me with my luggage and invited me to the Virgin Atlantic departure lounge.
So far I was pleased, however it was my first impression of the lounge that blew me away and distinguished this experience from flying with Lufthansa, Air Canada, Emirates or Qantas. Each aspect of the Virgin departure lounge was designed with travelling customer in mind – from the lounge check-in desk, layout, interior design, points of services, customer service staff, to display boards, power sockets, music and lighting.Usually I know what to expect when it comes to airline lounges, although few times in my life I was particularly impressed when travelling to the Gulf region (on Qatar Airways), but this trip threw me for a loop.
Virgin Atlantic pro-actively responded to my potential needs and desires as I progressed with my journey. According to numerous research (f.e. Design Council) and interviews I came across, service design is a strategic function integrated into the Virgin Atlantic organizational structure. The function is responsible for developing all aspects of the customer service experience and for ensuring that customer-facing staff throughout the organization adopt and follow the correct procedure.
Service design uses various skill set from across design disciplines, and while the management of function comes from a conventional background, according to the company, Virgin Atlantic has also recruited people with service design background and leveraged contribution from service design agencies across number of projects. The implementation of service design is also rather different from other areas of design team’s responsibility. The company service design team works with the company’s crew management as well as with its human resources department to ensure that new offerings are accepted, integrated and delivered successfully.
In recent years there have been a great improvements in passenger experience in the aviation industry, however customers are still looking for that smooth, easy and enjoyable travel experience, where they feel acknowledged, valued, considered and supported. The design team at Virgin aims to deliver exactly that. It includes interior designers, architects, industrial designers and product designers; and they work closely with the company’s brand design team and with external design consultancy firms to develop the final solution for a project; which in return makes sure that the creative side of the in-house team is constantly invigorated, like with Engine for redesigning Heathrow London’s Terminal 3 to re-invigorate their customers’ service experiences pre- and post- flight. I learned that Virgin Atlantic Airways has a company-wide project management system that is used for all significant projects, including design and service design activities. It does not, however constitute a design process, merely a way of ensuring that projects progress within time and budgetary constraints. It does not have a formal structure but it does follow consecutive stages with certain milestones in each one, similar to the service design double diamond model.
Research & Development: it starts with a “Product Challenge” where ideas are kept as fluid as possible, having little direct communication between third parties to allow them to use their creative capabilities to the full. This phase more or less covers the Discovery and early Define phases of the Double Diamond model. The next phase of a project is a move into the “Opportunity Identifier” stage in which project ideas are evaluated based on commercial awareness and KPIs (both tangible and intangible: customer satisfaction, return on investment) and budgets and timelines begin to be set and risks assessed; for the project to be taken into consideration (Define phase). Then a fully developed mock-up design and a Detailed Design Specification are developed and the case is built in a dialogue between the design team an the business unit in charge of the project (to involve all stakeholders and committing them to the execution of it) – final Definition stage of the project.
In the second diamond phase (Develop & Deliver) the design team needs to make sure that the final product is as close as physically possible to the Detailed Design Specification (DDS), through a series of checks which requires designers and engineers to work closely together with manufacturers.
In the Delivery phase (Implementation) the new development takes off into the sky and beyond… to finally evaluate the project’s KPIs, using questionnaires with customers, third party benchmarking data to compare with its competitors and the company’s own group of senior management frequent fliers. Virgin Atlantic, in a fierce competitive airline industry, despite being a mid-priced airline has managed to punch beyond its weight and deliver a really desired traveller’s experience.
It is the Upper Class Suite experience that is one of the best examples of service or experience orientated design at Virgin Atlantic. This project originated from Virgin’s recognition that there was a business need around creating a flat bed. Competitors focused mostly on the product itself, whereas, according to media releases, Virgin adopted a broader perspective around customer needs, therefore the project “incorporated everything from the meal service to the on-board service, etc.
What makes the entire experience exceptional is also the end to end customer journey mapping for Upper Class experience resulting in creating ‘almost a private terminal feel in a big airport like London Heathrow – where you can go in with a private drop-off, private security corridor straight into the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse. It’s such a differentiation from other airline experiences. And it’s the start of the journey that make a lasting impression and make a traveler feel great. That kick off is usually impacted by visit to Virgin Atlantic website (visual, easy to easy, focused on accessibility standards and reflecting Virgin brand through copy and multimedia content).
I certainly did enjoy my Virgin journey. Having experienced delivered brand promise triggered my desire to explore other Virgin consumer services such as banking, mobile, tv, online, airline, trains, etc. I might not always select Upper Class for my trans-atlantic flights, given the price and often budget considerations, however I will certainly check first Virgin airline for economy or business class when making a flight purchase decision in the future. In fact I can only regret that short-haul fights within Europe are not operated by Virgin.
I also used this experience as a reference during service design workshop presentations at Coca-Cola head offices in Atlanta. It seems everyone from among participants, who has experienced flying with Virgin Atlantic, agreed with my perception of VA. This was a great customer service example that helped to demonstrate the business value of applying service design thinking principles to various service or product related projects.