Virgin Money Turns Unhappy Customers Into Friends

"A complaint", Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson once said, "is a chance to turn a customer into a lifelong friend."

It's the sort of idealistic statement one expects from the adventurous billionaire. Branson is known for his hyperbole. But the team at Virgin Money UK decided to take the colourful entrepreneur at his word. Could they really transform customer experience from frustration to delight? Could they make complaint handling the cornerstone of an initiative to boost customer loyalty and support?

In 2017 they decided to try.

OBSTACLES

Virgin provides savings, mortgages, credit cards, current accounts, currency services, pensions, investments, and protection products to more than 3 million customers in the UK. The company’s 3,000 employees maintain 75 stores and seven lounges. Overhauling complaint-handling procedures and philosophy would require a major effort to make a difference in an enterprise that large.

Making friends is not, admittedly, something the banking business is known for. Banks are among the most heavily regulated of companies, and as a result, customer-facing employees tend to rely on dry, colourless form letters that have been approved by management, the legal team, and the government compliance department. Surveys reveal that banking is one of the UK’s least loved industries. Fulfilling Branson’s idealistic ambition would require Virgin staffers to shake off the shackles of banking culture, to cut through red tape ruthlessly, and to adopt a single-minded focus on customers.

The customer-relations team started by setting three specific goals: to reduce the overall number of complaints, to improve complaint-resolution time, and to reduce the number of complaints escalated to ombudsman services for resolution.

As you might expect from bankers, the goals are quantitative, easily measured. The initiative may have started as a lofty expression of ambition - to transform unhappy customers into lifelong friends - but the results would be measurable and verifiable.

The team's goals sparked nothing short of a cultural revolution within Virgin Money.

POWER TO THE PEOPLE

Virgin’s customer-relations team took six specific steps to effect the transformation.

  • It created and documented an end-to-end customer path through the complaint process.
  • It created a multidisciplinary complaint-resolution framework encompassing staff members from across the company, from legal to IT and beyond.
  • It established rules and principles empowering staff members, encouraging them to use their discretion in resolving complaints.
  • It set up training programmes and resources to boost empathy and effectiveness among customer-relations staffers.
  • It set up a training and knowledge-sharing platform to encourage the spread of best practices and recognise employees for exemplary work.
  • And it explicitly gave employees permission to give customers financial remuneration or gifts as compensation for their inconvenience - without referral to another department or a lengthy approval process.

At least four of these steps focus on the secret of effective complaint resolution: empowering customer-facing staffers to use their initiative to make customers happy without burdening them with complicated rules or multiple layers of approval. Virgin gave its customer-relations professionals the freedom to use their ingenuity and empathy to make customers happy. And it worked.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Every Virgin Money staff member who handles complaints now receives special training to ensure that when a customer makes a complaint, the experience is nothing like a typical banking interaction. Staffers are trusted to use their initiative to resolve problems without worrying about rigid formal procedures.

For example, customer-relations agents are free to distribute vouchers to unhappy customers, or even to send flowers. The best ideas are documented on an internal website so other customer-relations professionals can adopt and improve upon them.

The new programme delivered tangible results in its first year of implementation:

  • Complaint-resolution times dropped from an average of 11 days in 2016 to seven days in 2017.
  • Complaints resolved within three days increased from 39% to 60%.
  • Complaints resolved in the company’s favour grew from 62% to 78%.
  • The company’s Net Promoter Score jumped from +29 to +40.
  • Best of all, customer retention and recruitment boomed. Virgin Money’s customer base increased by 15% to 3.3 million in the 12 months following the adoption of the programme.

Virgin has established metrics to monitor complaint handling successes and failures closely. It benchmarks results against industry averages and competitors' performance. It does all the quantitative analysis you expect bankers to do.

But Virgin's big boost in complaint handling isn't about the numbers. It's about giving people the training, resources, freedom, and encouragement to do their best work.

That's the sort of idealistic commitment you expect from a company founded by a dreamer of Richard Branson's calibre.


The UK Complaint Handling Awards 2019 is now open for entries with an early bird price available for a limited time. Check out the categories here and enter your own complaint handling success story online before 16th November 2018.