Love in the air: Shai Weiss on Virgin Atlantic and its relationship with love

Fireside chats are a great alternative to traditional presentations. At the NASSCOM Technology and Leadership Forum 2019 (NTLF 2019), the inimitable Rajendar Pawar, Chairman, NIIT, hosted Shai Weiss, CEO, Virgin Atlantic Airways Limited for the conversation.

This conversation is a lesson in love. Literally.

Heart over mind

Unlike the other sessions, this conversation was not about data, digital, analytics, AI, and growth. “If there is a cutting-edge to technology, there is also a bleeding edge,” says Pawar steering the conversation to a space where society and market expects more in the matters of the heart than mind.

The topic of conversation? Love, of course.  Virgin Atlantic’s philosophy of ‘love’ is not just a part of the company’s communication and vocabulary, but embedded in its thinking, business process, and service.

What’s love got to do with it?

At the core of this philosophy is Virgin’s love for service. This mantra is a distillation of insight gathered from the thousands-strong workforce of this 34-year old airline company.

Weiss reveals an internal survey was run with basic questions: What are we best at? what drives our economic engine? What are we passionate about? The results were a pleasant surprise.

People at Virgin love to love. They love flying, service, exceeding customer expectations, engineering, learning, and even their CEO, Sir Richard Branson!

“We want to be the world’s most loved travel company,” declares Weiss.

That’s not an impossible goal for Virgin Atlantic. Aviation is built, and runs, on technology infrastructure. Yet, for Weiss, technology belongs to equals and isn’t a differentiator.

“The only differentiator is the people we have,” Weiss exclaims beaming.

No amount of data, analytics, mining, AI, and digital transformation works if the human touch is absent. Quite simply, the human touch is untouchable by technology.

Love is empathy is emotion

The challenge with love is, how do you instil this emotion across and through an organization as large as Virgin? The answer is empathy. No longer are employees working on-site called ‘remote workforce’. Virgin’s employee engagement and skilling initiatives is a template of CEO Branson’s mantra: take care of the people who take care of customers who take care of the bottom-line.

Treat well, train better

Current practices of talent acquisition focus on behaviour and attitude and not just competence and aptitude. That’s just while hiring.

Employee retention is a serious business. Yes, technology is used, but far more than that is the consistent and earnest effort to make Virgin an organization that the workforces loves to work for. Weiss believes that retention is not just empowering the workforce with skills and better training but also treating them well so that they use those skills to create value for the company.

 It’s all about the journey

This is a critical piece of the puzzle: Virgin Atlantic offers air transport services. Customers have the option of choosing the cost at which they fly, but airlines need to focus on the value of customer experience. It counts more than price alone.

Delivering well-articulated and differentiated service propositions add additional value for customers. Virgin understands the importance of this differentiation. Technology empowers to glean insights on flyer preferences and services desired. Ultimately, though, these services have a human touchpoint. A happier crew results in delighted customers, and this is what translates preferences to purchase.

 Tough love

Greater use of smart technology increases the risk of data breaches and cybersecurity. For the business they are in, airlines must be resilient and safest. They must innovate too.

Weiss calls it the “innovation versus operations dichotomy”. He firmly believes that failures are critical to success. Yet these failures must be small, repeated, and agile. People are willing to fail more when they’re empowered.  Giving people choice empowers them to make great decisions.

What it is that makes Virgin different?  The simple answer is – its people and all that love.


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