TAKING OFF

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Think you can’t make your customer experience downright fabulous? Virgin America’s marketing maven Porter Gale begs to differ.

If you’ve never flown on Virgin America, you might not be inclined to rhapsodize about the in-flight video entertainment, the mood lighting, the achiote chicken hand roll you ordered from your seat at the precise moment you felt hungry. Maybe the last time your flight was delayed, the captain did not make his way around the waiting area, introducing himself and explaining the idiosyncracies of San Francisco weather, reassuring each person that the delay would be as brief as possible.

If the Virgin America experience isn’t what you imagine when you think of air travel, that’s fine with Porter Gale, Virgin America’s vice president of marketing. She’s happy to be promoting a brand that is differentiated on every level. In advance of her presentation at THINK 11, we caught up with Gale to find out more about turning ho-hum customer experiences into runaway success:

THINK: Although most of us don’t associate airlines with financial services, they share some of the same perception problems: Customers are unhappy, experiences are unpleasant, there’s an air of distrust. What does it take to jump into an industry with this kind of consumer perception and turn things around?

GALE: We’ve tried to change the entire experience of flying, so we think about every touchpoint and try to raise the bar. For instance, people are used to getting poor food when they travel; our food constantly wins awards. It’s very good quality. It’s fresh.

THINK: But running an airline profitably – and with a smile – isn’t easy to do. How do you prevent the “un-fun” side of running the business from bringing down the customer experience?

GALE: At one point we recognized that we were going to have to start charging for headphones, which we knew guests wouldn’t like. Instead of selling a cheap and undifferentiated headphone, we actually designed some that could be keepsakes. Our headsets are available in pink, silver and blue (with a fun, retro-techno vibe).

What happened was that people actually started collecting them. I’ve seen people wearing them at health clubs or walking around downtown. They became a fun item, and their value far outweighed the $2 cost. So, even buying headsets became a positive rather than a negative experience for the guest.

THINK: Do you think opportunities like the one you seized here are often missed — especially in industries where mediocrity is the norm?

GALE: Yes. Typically, people will take the easiest route to solving a problem. It wasn’t easy to create a great headset. Figuring out a process to manufacture them in a cost-effective way took extra time for the design team, the procurement team, etc. But if you put the attention on the details and give things that are guest-centric a significant importance, then you can have a more successful business. You don’t have to settle for mediocrity.

THINK: Do consumers really notice the difference?

GALE: Absolutely. When I first started, we would get emails saying things such as, “I wish my flight was longer.” I remember reading thinking, “Wow, that’s incredible!” But it’s because they’re having fun, they’re being respected, they have great entertainment. And we’ve made the experience comfortable. As a result, we’ve created a very passionate fan base, so a lot of our marketing actually comes from word of mouth.

THINK: How does positive buzz affect your overall marketing efforts?

GALE: To have that (commitment to excellence) at the core of the company has made marketing a much easier proposition. Our guests are genuinely passionate, and they’re passionate about sharing their experiences. I think it’s because people are used to negative conversation about the category– bad experiences, lost baggage. Here we’ve totally turned that on a dime and we have actually made flying an experience that people love.