There aren’t many people I have less in common with, lifestyle-wise, than Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group. He measures his dollars in billions. (I don’t; I’m not that great with fractions.) He’s besties with Mick and Sting and Quincy and Adele. (I’m not.) He kitesurfs with supermodels riding piggyback in a spectacular state of undress. (I don’t think I know any models, super- or not, clothed or otherwise.) But Sir Richard and I do share a belief that customer service makes the business world go ’round. A particular kind of customer service: authentic service, service without the soul and personality sucked out of it.
Informality and Authenticity
“We take an informal and anti-scripting approach to customer service at all of our Virgin brands,” Branson tells me, as he painstakingly prepares his British tea (even though we’re in downtown Chicago, at his new Virgin hotel). “Customers enjoy doing business with personable employees who tailor service to the customer and the customer’s situation.” By contrast,” he says, “some Middle Eastern and Asian airlines”—here, he names names (I won’t), all of them competitors to his own Virgin Atlantic international airline—“have service standards that are extremely high, but don’t deliver the right style of service for customers today.” All of those perfectly coiffed, well-scrubbed flight attendants, “who are only allowed to deliver scripted lines—employees the airlines keep around for what seems like only three years before they’re replaced with another interchangeable flight attendant speaking exactly the same script—that’s not what we’re about and that’s not the kind of service customers want today.” “‘Stepford service,’” I offer.
“Exactly,” he replies. “That’s what I want to avoid: Stepford-type customer service.”
Branson’s preferences are well aligned with those of customers in today’s marketplace. Consumers today are allergic to anything that strikes them as insincere, including a stilted, overly formal, or obviously scripted service style. They’re looking for a candid, down-to-earth, even slangy style of communication from the businesspeople who serve them. (I should clarify: this is what they want from most businesspeople who serve them. Customers still do prefer a few categories of professionals—such as oncologists, pilots, judges, and funeral directors—to retain a smidgen of formality.) No matter how caring a service provider’s actions may be, if the service style comes off as artificial, it puts a ceiling on how intimate and inviting interactions can be between employees and customers.