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Virgin Holidays is adding what it sees as the last missing link in a transformation of its customer service.
The travel company has been working since 2014 on turning the business around, to create better links with the airline Virgin Atlantic, and develop a closer relationship with its customers.
Saul Lopes, customer lifecycle lead at Virgin Holidays, presented the transformation plan at an Adobe event in London in October and spoke to Computer Weekly about it.
In 2014, the company’s results showed that Virgin Holidays was suffering from low profit margins, says Lopes. “Profits were going down and there was a lot of pressure for change,” he adds.
The company realised it needed to rethink how it did business and look for new market directions. “We can’t be a traditional tour operator,” says Lopes.
Products from tour operators can be cloned very easily, says Lopes, so Virgin Holidays needed to look at how it could be different.
Its plan was to start working closely with the airline business, he says. “We needed to find synergies with the airline to help us gain market share and be able to ‘win on experience’ – and we had to refocus on top destinations.”
Lopes, who joined the company in May 2015, says Virgin Holidays needed to focus on the end-to-end customer experience of booking and taking a holiday. “I put a lot of emphasis on the customer journey and we started doing the groundwork to help with making holiday experiences,” he says.
The team started with customers’ pre-departure strategy. “We knew we weren’t meeting customer expectations from the time when a customer books a holiday and when they go on holiday,” says Lopes. The customer experience was not joined up, making it harder to upsell products such as holiday cash or travel insurance and support customers when they called the company, he adds.
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Among the difficulties staff faced was the way the systems for customers were set up. “We had a very complex structure supported by many people,” says Lopes. “I noticed the team spent all of the time working with a diverse toolset for customer communications.”
One of the key goals of the business was to align its technology stack with that of the airline, where it made sense. One example is using Salesforce Marketing Cloud across both Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Holidays.
Virgin Atlantic had already preselected Adobe Campaign for marketing to customers and this was the tool Virgin Holidays decided to use as well.
Lopes says the company wanted the simplest tool that would require the least effort. The customer database was previously stored across 44 tables, which meant that users needed to call on specialist database expertise every time they wanted to query it, he says. The move to Adobe Campaign gave the team an opportunity to reorganise its customer data, which reduced the number of tables from 44 to seven.
Lopes says: “We are quite an agile business and we have a big culture of trust. All the directors wanted the change and I had a great customer analyst who spearheaded all the changes.”
The work began by assessing the data stores used by the incumbent customer experience. “We asked the business what data it needed going forward, and then remapped the data for the new customer experiences we wanted to offer,” he says.
The result is that Virgin Holidays can now structure its communications and follow-up emails with customers. Three days after a booking, the customer receives a “celebrate your holiday” message, says Lopes. After seven days, the customer is introduced to a Virgin Holidays holiday expert.
According to Lopes, 60 days before the departure date is the time when customers start thinking about additional excursions to book. For instance, in Florida, swimming with dolphins sells out 35 days in advance, he says.
Thirty days before departure, Virgin Holidays sends a message to the customer with an offer to buy holiday money or an airport lounge entry ticket. A week before departure, the customer gets a follow-up call.
“It used to takes days to work through the systems and the data to create an email for a customer,” says Lopes. “Now my team can focus more on the experience and less on the tech.”
The final part of the transformation is now being tested – linking the reservation system with Adobe Campaign. Lopes says: “Previously, if someone made a change to their flight, it didn’t get fed in. Now we have the missing piece of the puzzle to enable us to put all customer data in one place. ”
The work involved decoupling the communication platform from the reservation platform and feeding customer communications via Adobe Campaign. This means that customer communications emails, such as payment reminders, can now be consolidated in one place.
From a business perspective Virgin Holidays is now running data modelling across customer segments, says Lopes, adding: “We are looking at things like the top experiences a customer expects.” This has led to pilots of 200 experiences in the US being available on Virgin Holidays.