George Read, Digital Partner at Cognizant, led the discussion, and began by asking Fitzpatrick about how Covid will impact customer experience long-term…

Listening for customer nuance

Siobhan Fitzpatrick says that organisations have once again realised the importance of listening to their customers.

“The thing that really became most apparent in the past 12 months, particularly in the first six months of the Covid impact, was the frequency in which you listen to customers, and the nuances of what you are hearing.” 

Fitzpatrick says that Virgin Atlantic made a number of changes to its communications strategy as a result of the pandemic, specifically how it interacted with customers across touchpoints. 

“We changed the frequency, we changed the questions. We became much more, if you like, ‘dipstick-orientated’, to try and work out what were the key concerns that customers had at the time and how we could address them.”

Fitzpatrick explains how these concerns shifted over time, from enquires about cancellations and changing flights, to finding out information about safety regulations on flights. As a consequence of this, she says, Virgin Atlantic realised how “customers were, much more quickly, accelerating their adoption of digital channels.” 

In turn, “that led to an adoption of self-service. So, how do you enable customers to do more of that themselves within those channels?”

Overall, Virgin Atlantic found that there was an acceleration of the “digital-first mindset”, which meant, as Fitzpatrick explains, “understanding what it takes (as a culture and an organisation) to become truly agile and responsive, and to be able to work much more cross-functionally, and take what you’re learning from customers and make it happen very quickly.”

Organising for end-to-end customer journeys

When it comes to cross-functionality, Read suggests that many marketing-led CX teams seem to be tapping into data from other areas of the business. Ultimately, he asks, “is CX moving further up the agenda to permeate entire organisations?”

Fitzpatrick agrees, stating that “the thing that is different [since Covid] is organisations – and I would include ourselves in that – is that we have set ourselves up differently for success.”

“Organisationally, we are starting to structure ourselves so that those teams who are accountable for defining and devising those end-to-end journeys now sit in one place.”

This means that Fitzpatrick’s team, for example, works closely with the customer and operations teams, who are responsible for the experience that occurs when travellers land at an airport or call a contact centre.

“What has happened, historically, is that there has been lots of pockets of data sitting in siloed parts of the organisation. Now, what Covid has definitely reinforced, is the need to join that data up. And not just join the data up – it’s to have the insight that comes out of it. For us, that ability to create that single view of the customer, and to understand the lifts and drags of that experience, to think about the voice of that customer – right when they are starting to think about travel all the way to their destination at the other end. Being able to pull all those things together has been really important.”

The ‘double helix’ of EX and CX

The conversation turns to the topic of employee experience (EX), and specifically how “treating employees like your internal customers, can bleed into CX.”

Fitzpatrick explains how EX is hugely important to Virgin Atlantic. “Whether it is in a retail store, in a contact centre, or at a check-in, on a plane – our people are our secret sauce,” she says. “It is a uniquely differentiating experience and really special to us.”

“So, making sure that we have created that deep understanding between the experience our customers have and the experience that our people have has been really critical for us.”

Virgin Atlantic calls this strategy the ‘double helix’. Fitzpatrick explains that this means “creating the same principles that we would take for defining and understanding the lifts and drags on an external customer experience but for an employee experience.” 

Ultimately, this enables the organisation to not only create a happy workforce, but to also benefit over-arching business strategy. “How do we drive NPS? And how do we drive engagement? As well as making sure that we attract and retain supremely talented individuals,” she explains.

Alongside this, Fitzpatrick highlights the importance of using employee engagement communication channels such as Workplace. “We have worked really hard to make sure that communication throughout the whole of the Covid crisis has been exemplary,” she says “and we use the data that comes out of Workplace in the same way that we would use data that would come out of customer listening tools, so we can understand employee engagement.” 

From personalisation to empowering self-service

The discussion ends with the topic of personalisation, or rather, the dangers of hyper-personalisation. Read suggests that, previously, “technology wasn’t able to fuel the experiences that we thought we wanted to create.” Now that we do have the technology, is there a line when it comes to personalisation. “Do you think there is a risk we are over-stepping the mark with our personalisation efforts?” he asks.

Fitzpatrick states that personalisation has to be useful in order to be effective. As a result, she says, “the lens that is becoming even more prevalent is self-service.”

“How does [personalisation] create differentiation in your experience that actually drives brand affinity and love? Clearly that can’t be disruptive or in any way damaging. The second one is how does it better empower somebody to take better accountability for managing their own experience and their own journey?”

“What you are doing is providing a toolset and a methodology and a framework which is useful and relevant for them.”

Fitzpatrick cites the retail industry as often being best practice in this area. For Virgin Atlantic, she says, it is about asking “how do we take those best elements and leverage them back into travel and particularly airlines?”

Ultimately, the answer is omni-channel, with Fiztpatrick also highlighting the important role physical touchpoints play in creating ‘thoughtful experiences’. 

“Whatever I am doing, I should be able to carry that experience, that touchpoint, that basket, wish-list, transaction… whatever it is, I should be able to take those across all of those channels. 

“It’s the infusion, then, of that secret sauce (of love and human contact) that we absolutely pride ourselves on in Virgin Atlantic. I don’t think that’s a change from the last 18 months, I just think we need to get faster at now enabling the adoption that customers have across channels, particularly digital.”

2021 Digital Trends – Travel & Hospitality in Focus