Virgin Atlantic finds community benefit with Salesforce

Airline’s business-to-business and cargo divisions have found Salesforce CRM to offer a “family feel” beyond the software

Virgin Atlantic Airlines has found an agility benefit to using customer relationship management technology from Salesforce.

But Spencer Collins, head of global sales effectiveness at Virgin Atlantic, says the value it has found with the cloud-based platform goes beyond the product itself.

“Salesforce is not just a product, it is also a community,” says Collins. “I agree with the ‘family’ idea [that the supplier’s CEO Mark Benioff propounds]. You don’t have that with [Microsoft] Dynamics, say. Salesforce is very proactive in making sure we get the most out of our investment. It is extremely engaged at all levels.”

Collins, who spoke to Computer Weekly at Salesforce’s Dreamforce conference this month, said the supplier was “moving towards being a partner”, adding: “It’s not the usual ‘we’ll sell you a product then see you again at the time of renegotiation’.”

Collins said his role was to make sure Virgin Atlantic sales staff had the skills and tools to do their jobs and “to incentivise them correctly to ensure they are working towards our corporate goals”.

He is a customer relationship management (CRM) specialist, 10 months into his role at the airline. His first five years with a previous company were spent in IT, on the infrastructure side. As a former IT professional who has moved over to the business, he jokes that it is hard to pull the wool over his eyes.

The airline’s business-to-business (B2B) division and its cargo operation decided to replace Microsoft Dynamics with Salesforce about 18 months ago, before Collins joined. Its business-to-consumer division has remained with Dynamics.

“Virgin Atlantic is a Microsoft shop, so an on-premise system was an obvious choice,” he said. “But it was limited, at least then, in relation to mobility capability for our field sales people. It was too cumbersome in terms of security.”

Collins’ focus is the B2B side of the airline’s custom, where it deals with corporate organisations directly, travel management companies and travel agencies.

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One big business benefit from the Salesforce CRM technology, he says, has been the capacity to link up the sales and customer engagement efforts globally.

The system has 270 users in the B2B division, including 120 salespeople, and has 75 users in the cargo business.

“Before Salesforce, we did not have CRM outside the UK,” said Collins. “As well as the UK-US business, we operate in Hong Kong, China, South Africa, Nigeria and India. Previously, they were cut off from our sales organisation. We have now given them the tools, and that’s especially important with time zone differences.

“For example, we could have someone meeting with a corporate client in Hong Kong, but the same company could be dealt with by a UK sales rep, and the information will be shared to be visible in Salesforce, or an account manager can see worldwide on a mobile device [what the situation is with a customer].

“They could make a request for an upgrade for an executive and get automatic approval for that. Previously, that would have been done on email, so if someone was off or on holiday, that would slow things down.

“One of the best things is the collaboration, having tools on devices, and being able to instantly get information about a customer and share and collaborate via Chatter [Salesforce’s enterprise social media product].”

More agile

Collins said the Salesforce technology helped make the airline more agile, especially in its communications with customers. “We pride ourselves on being more nimble than the larger airline,” he said. “We can be very fast in reacting to market pressures.”

Virgin only does long-haul flights and has 40 aircraft, while others have many more. So it is useful to turn its size to advantage by being more nimble, said Collins.

The roll-out itself, this year, has been fast, he said, adding: “Ever since deployment, we have been on a two-weekly agile roll-out of new features – that increases trust of our users, and has been extremely helpful.”

But he feels the overriding benefit is the community generated by the use of the software. “I have actively been involved in [Salesforce] user groups,” he said. “You are definitely not alone with no one understanding what you are going through. They do support the meet-ups but there is no pressure to sell. It more of a family feel.”

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