The Time I Thought Twice About Hooking Up with a Virgin

It’s about time that I update my blog with some new marketing wisdom, commentary, and humor.  I suppose taking a hiatus of over two years warrants some fresh content to be posted.  I’ve broken online marketing rule #1 which is the importance of keeping content fresh and current.  Ironically enough, this post digs into a topic that was current a few months back but that still has relevance in the realm of online marketing.  Based on the title of this post, you may be here just to satisfy curiosity or because you were *ahem* looking for something else online and search results brought you here.  Either way, I hope you learn something fun about the time I almost couldn’t hook up with a Virgin anymore.  Obviously, I’m referring to Virgin the company, or, more specifically, the Virgin America airline, rather than something shady. 

A few months back, in July, Virgin America ran an exclusive online promotion that lasted just a few hours and offered low rates on flights to specific destination cities to which the airline flies.  I recall receiving the e-mail, to celebrate

Three-Peat Win of #1 Best Domestic Airline by Travel + Leisure’s World’s Best Awards

, and immediately checked out their site for more details.  At the time, my wife and I were considering vacation options and thought the offer presented the perfect solution for booking airfare to LA to visit my brother.

Because of the “limited-time offer” that allowed just a few hours to book, the offer was very popular.  I checked with my wife to gauge interest on booking flights, and, by the time I logged back into the Virgin America website, the response time was sluggish at best.   My theory is that, as people began to receive the e-mail promotion in their inbox, they were checking out the offer, forwarding to friends, etc.  Even Facebook generated a buzz under the Virgin America profile page as people began to talk about the offer.

As they say, patience usually pays off, so, I returned to the site several times to try and complete a booking.  As a member of Virgin’s Elevate flyer program, and a holder of a Virgin America Visa to allow even more points to accrue, I thought that the offer presented a great way to use points to complete my transaction as well.

This is where the company’s marketing problems started to rear their ugly heads.  Because of the popularity of the online offer, the Virgin America website crashed and nobody had a consistent experience when trying to take advantage.  I personally had experienced the site “hanging” and allowing me to book part of our airfare and then a site error message would appear.  Finally, I was able to get to the last page of the online booking process and was using Elevate points to complete it.  As I clicked to complete, I once again received an error page.  Uh oh.  I tried to refresh with no luck.  The site was down completely.

By this point, the Facebook comments were piling up on the Virgin America page.  Customer after customer was commenting that the site was down, that they couldn’t reach customer service at all because the phone lines were flooded and also down, and how they were generally unhappy with the way the promotion was working, or, rather, not working out.

For me personally, the problem grew much worse as I discovered that, upon logging into my Elevate account, that the site took my points but didn’t complete the booking transaction.  I tried to contact the Virgin America support number, but, like Facebook commenters, found that it was essentially knocked off line.

I decided that there was nothing more that I could do and that I’d contact Virgin America the next day.  A short time later, Virgin America posted that the online promotion would be extended so that those who were unable to book could log in and do so.  However, for me personally, this didn’t work either, as I had to work with customer support to get points restored.

The bottom line was that I did get my points restored after a few days but missed out on this marketing promotion.  For marketers in general, there are a few key takeaways.  Here we go:

1.  If offering a limited-time only promotion, especially one that is online and response is nearly instantaneous, be sure that your website’s load capacity has been tested and can handled the spike in traffic and that the e-commerce engine can handle the transactions.  Even if the promotion is executed flawlessly on the front end, the time that wasn’t taken on the back end to make sure that the volume can be handled can be disasterous and tarnish even the best of brands.

2. Should something unexpected happen that causes a hiccup–or in this case all-out heart failure–in the online promotion, be sure that the customer support team is prepared for additional volume.  This is important right after the promotion launches, in particular, as the response tends to be immediate and as the word spreads online, has a domino effect on customer volume increases.  In this case, Virgin America’s 800 line went down, cut people off while talking to customer reps, etc.  While I found the reps to always be personable when I did reach them, the added stress of non-functioning online and phone response mechanisms had them frazzled.  The human element is important for support, but have the tested tools, like adding capacity to 800 numbers and online customer service e-mail boxes, live chat, etc. is equally as important.

Ultimately, I continue to believe that the Virgin America brand is strong and customer oriented.  I’ve flown several times on their non-stop D.C. to LA service and the experience has been positive, from the quality food and beers that can be purchased to the “hip and cool” multimedia experience that is available in their cabins.  They’ve since run a multitude of promotions to celebrate company milestones, from being voted “best of XXX (insert best of whatever here)…” to holiday sales such as Halloween Spook-Taculars, to generally reasonable non-stop flights to the west coast.  Having a parent brand that is known for not being “stuffy” and an ambassador in Richard Branson who lives and breathes what Virgin stands for is also positive reinforcement for the brand.  Because of this, my trust was shaken too severely, especially when compared to other airlines where customer service is truly dead.

I hope that this particular marketing snafu didn’t ruin experiences for first time potential customers whose only experience with the airline was a stressful, fruitless promotional sale booking.  It’s just reinforcement that, when planning to generate buzz online and run a promotion, having all bases covered is important, because the results, good or bad, are instantaneous and today’s f-ups are tomorrows critical blog posts, twitter posts, Facebook posts and (insert whatever the next social media outlet is here) post.


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