4 customer service secrets from Richard Branson’s Virgin Hotels

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by Micah Solomon

If you want to succeed with today’s modern traveler and hotel guests – including the oversized millennial generation – as well as their elders, you should be benchmarking and learning from Virgin Hotels.

Having engaged extensively with the Virgin Hotels brand in the course of researching my new book, The Heart of Hospitality: Great Hotel and Restaurant Leaders Share Their Secrets, my impression is that founder Richard Branson and CEO Raul Leal may well be on track to turn Virgin Hotels into the next billion-dollar Virgin brand.

Today, Virgin Hotels consists of a single flagship hotel in downtown Chicago, the beautifully renovated former Old Dearborn building, and seven new locations are coming soon in major cities across the U.S. In their flagship location, however, Branson and Leal are setting out to reinvent hospitality in ways that are sometimes subtle but always daring, including the following four.

Stuffy luxury doesn’t resonate with today’s travelers
Virgin Hotels, Branson tells me, is a “very anti-scripting” brand; Branson feels that the type of customer service desired by today’s customers is authentic and entirely unscripted.

“Although Virgin Hotels is a luxury hotel, we don’t feel that luxury has to mean formality and stiffness,” Branson says. “Customers want service that’s delivered by a personable employee and tailored to the customer and the customer’s situation.”

In fact, he’s built the Virgin Hotels brand expressly on this principle, avoiding what he calls “Stepford customer service,” which is the rigid, phony, scripted service style that today’s guests find to be a turnoff. Because Sir Richard knows that if you treat customers robotically, they’ll run – not walk – to somewhere that feels more at home to them.

Make the customer experience shareable
A very clear phenomenon among guests today, including the enormous (and enormously important) millennial generation of travelers, is the feeling that “if it’s not on my phone, it didn’t happen.”

When I attended the grand opening of Virgin Hotels’ flagship hotel, I witnessed Branson – or, more literally, a photo-realistic life-size digital image of Branson – that rather brashly (or “cheekily,” as he would put it) encouraged social sharing. Guests at the grand opening were tempted by an invitation reading, “Sleep with Richard – we promise we’ll tell.”

Guests, one at a time, were then told to recline in a lascivious position in one of Virgin’s custom-designed guestroom beds, while Branson was digitally entwined with them to create a salacious photo for social distribution.

No more crazy overcharges
Virgin is also a pioneer in doing away with the $3.65 SNICKERS® bar. Rejecting the ridiculously overpriced traditional minibar approach taken by other luxury hotels, Virgin installed adorable miniature red (Virgin’s signature color) SMEG-brand fridges with reasonably – affordably! – priced snacks and other cheeky Virgin innovations like an “intimacy kit” (which includes exactly what you think it does).

Relentlessly monitor social media to respond more quickly
In addition to sharing on social media, Virgin Hotels is up to the minute on monitoring social media. Responding to customer complaints – and customer praise – properly today means responding quickly.

The Virgin brands together have 30 million followers and is very active in monitoring anything posted by, including complaints. Complaints, Leal and Branson tell me, aren’t something to be scared of, but rather a chance to grow. Also, if the complaint is properly handled, it can actually bring the guest closer to the brand.       ■

Micah Solomon is an author, consultant, keynote speaker and trainer focusing on customer service, the customer experience, consumer trends, hospitality and company culture. His latest book, The Heart of Hospitality: Great Hotel and Restaurant Leaders Share Their Secrets, brings together the customer service wisdom of the greatest hotel and restaurant leaders in the world. To learn more, visit www.micahsolomon.com.

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