People are your biggest asset. Treat them like it

When times are tough, it’s tempting to cut back on customer service—but your long-term success depends on relationships.

(Photo: iStock)

How a new company treats its customers often decides whether it will be successful. Great businesses are good at turning customers into advocates for their companies. This means that their marketing efforts are supported by customer word-of-mouth and positive comments on review sites and social media channels.

The retention of customers is important to any company; after all, it makes more sense to keep the good customers you have than to continually chase new ones. In the travel sector, companies have to take customer service seriously if they hope to succeed, because a wonderful flight, train journey—or soon, we hope, a space trip—begins and ends with great service. While a company may be able to find ways to improve the interiors of their planes or trains, perhaps installing more comfortable seats and serving better meals, that expensive technology and luxurious design will count for nothing if customer service is shoddy.

I was recently reminded of how important customer service is for all businesses, both new and established, when I reconnected with the team at Virgin America and saw how they train their new employees. I came away with three key lessons that can be applied at any company.

First, an investment in your employees is an investment in your company. All airlines must ensure that everyone on staff, from pilots to ground workers, has rigorous operational, safety, security and even medical training; but at Virgin America, that’s just the beginning. Our staff must also complete a broader immersion in brand values through a two-day annual “brand bath,” which the company calls Refresh. At those retreats, they focus on improving customer experience across the airline.

The flight crews are brought together with colleagues from different departments and trained in conflict resolution, hospitality and emotional intelligence, to help employees truly understand the customer’s perspective; to resolve issues and not push them up the chain.

As an entrepreneur, how can you bring your team together to solve problems and build their trust in each other? At a small business, this might be as simple as starting a tradition of eating lunch together and talking about how work is progressing.

Second, always lead from the front. At Refresh, Virgin America CEO David Cush often holds question-and-answer sessions with employees to ensure that he personally addresses their concerns. This is the first step in building bonds between front-line staff and senior managers, which helps to create easy and open communications.

I’ve argued on a few recent occasions in these pages that executives and managers must step away from their desks and get to know their staff. If your company is too big for regular meetings, spending a few hours handling customer complaints yourself or working on the factory floor will help you understand what’s really going on—and to break down any silos in your business.

Finally, make sure employees have the tools they need to succeed. Refresh teaches Virgin America employees how to solve problems on their own—a key to great customer service. This is an unusual approach; most businesses impose restrictions on their staff in terms of the types of problems employees can solve and the authority they have to do so. But our experience shows that the best solution is to provide people with the skills and confidence they need to deal with problems on their own, without sticking to a script or following a flow chart.

Most often, what’s missing is information. If, in your meetings with your staff or during your time on the floor, you notice that employees are groping for answers, it’s time to take action. Remove limits on access to databases; invest in new information technology; do whatever it takes to make sure that they can take initiative on their own. Celebrate successes in internal communications, to encourage others.

In tough times, when your competitors are cutting costs, it might be tempting to follow their lead and cut back on customer service. But slashing prices is not the only solution. Every customer is valuable; a thriving company is built on relationships, not just the bottom line.