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Opinion Loyalty Execution

Virgin Atlantic Finds That in a Crisis Perception is Everything

This week saw Virgin Atlantic faced with something fairly unusual — news stories saying it left passengers stranded at JFK with only $15 McDonalds vouchers. The media picked up on it as a chance to trash a brand which has become synonymous with caring for passengers — fairly unique in the airline industry.

To be fair, there was little else the airline could do:

1. The roads and public transport were all shut down for the big snowstorm

2. McDonalds was the only food outlet open

But the news stories still read “Virgin passengers left stranded at JFK with only a $15 meal voucher”.

Was Virgin In the Wrong?

There’s an argument to be made that they did all they could but the mistake they made is they didn’t appear to be doing all they could.

My guess is there were two areas where Virgin fell down:

--- not having enough staff to handle this eventuality
— lacking the right expertise to manage what (short of an accident) would be described as the worst case scenario

The importance of perception

Even if there are no other options, the appearance of trying to do more (or atleast everything possible) is key. Especially for passengers who are highly stressed and facing a long night in a practically shut down airport.

The key is the perception that the staff and the airline are ‘there with you,’ active and constantly moving to try to make things happen.

When the media or critics see an operational error, it’s like a wild animal smelling meat.

But when they smell an opening to ‘trash a respected brand’, it’s more like sharks smelling blood in the water. It becomes a feeding frenzy. Exactly as happened to Virgin this week.

It’s probably obvious by now that I’m a fan of Virgin Atlantic and the larger Virgin group. The primary reason is that the customer centric vision comes straight from the top — Richard Branson. He builds companies that compete via superior customer experience. While they don’t always get it right, they always seem like they’re trying to.

That’s why I hate to see them getting the perception part wrong this week at JFK Airport.

Feb 13, 2015  

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