The Virgin Group founder recently shared the five most important lessons he’s picked up during his time in the airline industry. So if you’re looking to start up in the skies, you might want to focus on these key areas...
"What may come as a surprise is that I’ve learned more about business and innovation from commercial aviation than I have from any of our other enterprises. In the last 30-plus years of disrupting the status quo in the airline industry, I have learned many lessons."
So, here they are...
1. Happy employees mean happy customers.
The best services can be destroyed by lousy delivery, so focus on the delivery team, and the rest will take care of itself. I have long preached that your people are your product, but this is especially true in commercial aviation. Talk about a captive audience! Where else are staff and customers trapped inside an airborne metal tube for hours on end?
Airline cabin crews are on stage for every minute of a flight, and their audiences can be pretty demanding. When someone says, “You won’t believe what X Airlines did to me last week,” that person is usually referring to the actions of a single employee, but blames the entire company for a bad experience.
2. The customer is (not) always right.
This may sound strange as a follow-up to Lesson one, but I have learned that while the customer is always relevant, he is not always right. Our customers have shared many ideas with us, and we have implemented lots of them.
But if your innovation strategy rests solely on asking your customers what they’d like to see, you’ll find that their ideas are limited by what they’ve previously experienced. Innovations like onboard massages and ordering food via video screens were suggested by Virgin Atlantic staff.
3. No such thing as a silly idea.
Establish a collaborative culture in which your people get the chance to share their crazy ideas with those who can make them happen. When our Virgin Atlantic crews noticed that passengers in our upper class cabins were continually "borrowing" our little airplane-shaped salt and pepper shakers during meal service, someone suggested that we should print "pinched from Virgin Atlantic" on the bottom.
What was intended as a joke turned out to be a brilliant idea: We did it, and they immediately became collector’s items. So, too, did the butter knives engraved with "Stainless Steal from Virgin Atlantic." Rather than shut the pilferage down, we encouraged it, and demonstrated that a touch of silliness helped us stand out from our more "serious" competitors.
4. Keep them coming back.
My lousy experiences on other airlines proved that simply meeting a customer’s expectations isn’t necessarily a good thing. Back then, my expectations were very low and, sadly, they were usually met with very poor service.
Rather, a key to success in any business is setting your customers’ expectations. They should know what they’re getting when they buy your product or use your service. A textbook example of an airline consistently delivering positive experiences that are in line with its customers’ expectations (and then reaping the financial benefits) is to be found at Southwest Airlines. They are famous for their nothing-fancy low fares and friendly, fun service. And they haven’t had a single unprofitable quarter for over 40 years; a truly remarkable achievement in such a volatile industry.
5. Don’t mess with success.
Once you find a winning formula, stick to it. Change for the sake of change can be as damaging as no change at all.
When your business is established and doing well, the devil is often in the details. We were brutally reminded of this at Virgin Atlantic a few years back when we innocently eliminated the ice cream bar on our daytime flights. We thought nobody would notice, but within days we were deluged with unhappy customers asking, "What happened to my ice cream?"