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customer experience
Shaun Smith
  • By Shaun Smith
  • Jul 20 2010

The ice cream and the airliner: which carries the most value?

At the Farnborough Air Show this weekend, Britain saw its first Boeing Dreamliner (above) – on which the company has bet its future. ‘Parked’ alongside it in the civil airliner area of the air show is Boeing’s European rival, the latest Airbus. But, amazing, high tech aircraft that they are, when it comes to creating a flying customer experience, these multi-million dollar aircraft will fast become mere commodities.

So, let’s take a look at how you would take your multi-million dollar commodity aircraft and build a unique customer experience around the flight itself. And to do so we have to look, of course, to the masters of creating an airline customer experience – Virgin. We’ve looked elsewhere in this blog at how Virgin crafts a unique experience for its passengers on the ground, before they even reach the plane. This post focuses on the bit that happens up in the air.

Create ‘difference’ in the experience

Like all other airlines, Virgin Atlantic used Boeing 747s for its long-haul flights. In a real sense, the multi-million dollar plane was a commodity - all the airlines had the same plane. The difference in the guest experience came from something Richard Branson dubbed ‘Virgin flair’. To ‘be different’ - because they knew that being surprising was what made the passengers remember their Virgin flight - Virgin started serving small ice creams during the in-flight movie. Because people often enjoy an ice cream in a cinema.

That’s your first learning point in this blog post: when you are crafting a customer experience, don’t invent everything anew; be creative in crafting the experience by borrowing little popular snapshots of experience from other sectors. This increases the chances of acceptance by customers of a service innovation - because they are already familiar with it in another context.

A Virgin cabin attendant called Sue Rawlings took the creation of a unique, memorable customer experience one stage further. In the galley, before serving the ice creams, she would smear some ice cream around her mouth. As she walked down the cabin with the ice cream tray, handing out the little gifts as the movie was about to start (big screens in those days) she would say loudly, so that people across the cabin looked up at her,

“People tell me these ice creams are delicious, but I’m on a diet and never touch them. Enjoy!”

As passengers looked up, they saw the ice cream around her mouth and the smile on her face and a ripple of laughter followed her down the plane. Other passengers looked up to see what people were laughing at and joined in the laughter.

Difference attracts customers

The passengers who experienced Sue Rawling’s ‘Virgin flair’ told all their friends and family and the story rippled around the world, becoming viral. Because it was MEMORABLE and FUN and SURPRISING (excuse the upper case - three important words in crafting a customer experience, of course, so I shouted them at you). People who had never flown Virgin heard about it. And when they had to book a trans-Atlantic flight and got to choose between Virgin and BA, they went for Virgin. Because they wanted the ice cream. And maybe they’d meet the zany flight attendant.

How much does an ice cream cost compared with a Boeing 747? How much did that free viral story-telling by the customers themselves - people trust referrals from other customers more than they trust a supplier message, remember - cost compared with a glossy advertising campaign? There are no little things in the customer experience. There are memorable things. And that will often come from your people.

A post-script to the story

That story, above, comes from our associate at smith+co Phil Dourado, who checked the detail with a senior manager at Virgin Atlantic. The manager confirmed it was true, named the flight attendant and said she was a ‘legend’ at the airline. Phil adds that he was on the way back from Shanghai to London earlier this month, after a one day visit – fly in one day, work at a conference the next, fly back the third day.

Obviously Virgin don’t do the ‘big screen and ice cream’ combo now, to mimic a cinema experience, as all the movies are on demand and viewed on the seatback screens. But, he did notice one innovation that we don’t think any other airline offers: on Virgin flights you can text other passengers, via their row and seat number, using the entertainment console handset. This innovation is intended to heighten the interactive experience of the flight – so you interact with the technology and your fellow passengers. More impressive than that, though, Phil reported, was the human touch.

Customer recognition – still a powerful thing

One of the Virgin cabin staff said to him on the way back: “You were on the flight out with us, weren’t you. Gosh you’ll be tired with two long-haul flights in three days.” A bit later her colleague appeared with a sleep suit (it was the morning and the flight had only just started) and said “We give these out later, but my colleague says you might want this earlier than everyone else. I’ll leave it here in case you do.” Then a third attendant, serving the meal, said “Oh, hello! (as if Phil was an old friend) I remember you from the flight out from London. Now, let’s see if I can remember what wine you like…

She didn’t. But, Phil says he was amazed at the passenger recognition, and that she had even tried to remember what wine he liked. Virgin flair again, I guess. No, he doesn’t remember the multi-million dollar plane they were flying in – Maybe an Airbus he said. But, he did remember the attention. And yes, it made him want to fly with them again.