Managing

The customers’ champion: Virgin’s Mark Hassell

Kath Walters /

No sooner have leading companies adjusted to the idea of inviting chief marketing officers (CMO) into the executive suite, than they find the role has been superseded by the Chief Customer Officer (CCO).

The CCO, says Mark Hassell, chief customer officer for Virgin Australia, is not the same job as the CMO. The marketing officer reports to Hassell and has a completely different focus.

“The chief customer officer is a very simple role: to be the customers’ champion within the business: the conscience, and their eyes and ears. It is to understand the psyche of the people who are considering giving you a go, who are trialling you, becoming loyalists, and then advocates. It is about having the head and heart of customer in the executive group to shape the business.”

The chief marketing officer is about looking at brand strategy, sponsorships, media planning, corporate identity, and uniforms.

Hassell says it is his job never to be satisfied. “My job is also to be a driver: taking the customer experience to the next level, unlocking the potential of our people and driving the A grade culture in our airline.”

Virgin’s booking system cutover

Hassell was intimately involved in Virgin’s recent shift to new online booking technology, which sent airline bookings and ticketing into disorder for a few days, and attracted a pile of criticism on Virgin’s Facebook site.

Hassell extracted 300 Virgin staff from their administrative roles in head office, told them to put aside their day jobs, and trained them as “change champions”, helping customers use the self-serve kiosks.

Hassell says: “We knew and publicised the fact to customers that while they would go through two or three days of change, while things will be slower, the outcome would be better. The overall cutover was very successful for us. It helped mature the company, it made us part of the global distribution system, and it was a major breakthrough.”

Hassell’s immersion in airlines started in his university days, in London, when he worked as a part-time flight attendant for British Airways. The Sydney Olympics in 2000 bought him to Australia with Qantas. It was a busy couple of years, with the collapse of Ansett in 2001, the attacks on New York’s twin trade towers and the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak causing the global aviation industry “massive problems”, he says.

Looking ahead

Hassell joined Virgin just over 12 months ago. Between the formalised meetings of the executive, Hassell has “a lot of dialogue” with Virgin’s CEO, John Borghetti. “John is a passionate customer advocate, and has helped legitimise the value of [my] role,” says Hassell. “In airlines, you tend to get very focused on operations and cutting costs; this role ensures all those imperatives remain in focus. It is a strong reminder of why we are here.”

His reach across the organisation is remarkable. Hassell works closely with Virgin’s chief operating officer, Sean Donohue. “His responsibility is to run an efficient operation, and mine is to surprise and delight all our customers,” Hassell says. “There is a lot of collaboration, which is the secret of success of the role: you need to be a strong collaborator.”

Hassell works with the property team on developing new terminal lounges, together with the chief financial officer, Sankar Narayan; the chief information officer, Lawrie Turner; with the inflight service teams. His aim is get service standards to “hospitality” levels – on a par with quality hotels, for example, or casino staff.

The CCO role in Australia

CCOs are few and far between in Australia. A peak body for those who do exist, the CCO Forum, started back in 2004, charging $5,500 for a membership or $2,750 to attend a single meeting, the next of which is on May 15 in Sydney.

David Jaffe, a founding member of the forum and former consultant at Accenture and AT Kearney, creates monthly meetings for the group. LeadingCompany contacted Jaffe to check membership numbers, but was unable to speak with him prior to deadline.

Hassell in the cockpit

What are the one or two top leadership issues facing you today?

Virgin is relatively small and our culture is evolving. It is a culture of energised professionals who know we are making a difference; there isn’t any legacy culture because the company is 12 years old and the brand is 18 months old (when Borghetti became CEO and took the airline upmarket).

The opportunity and potential to transform the business is evidence, but the journey is mid-way. The challenge is around focus and priority and planning so everyone knows what we are here to do. It is up to us to put a whole structure of planning and discipline around it, to optimise our performance.

How would you describe your leadership style?

A very inclusive one. I am a passionate individual who believes in what we are doing. With the right style of leadership you can attract and unlock the potential of the best.

I am out and about a lot, not in the office but on the front line, listening to phone calls in the call centre, having coffee mornings with customer relationship people, or talking to pilots about flying or at cabin crew forums. My email is on the website.

My priority is getting people to think the unthinkable. The legacy of the Virgin brand is not in aviation; [it] is an opportunity for us to challenge our thinking about innovation and taking Virgin to the next level. Our size and freshness is an advantage for us – we can decide and act quickly with a strong and effective leadership team.

What provides you with inspiration and energy

The font of my energy is to be in a role where you can truly make a difference … I am talking in terms of a legacy, or transforming an organisation, bringing choice back into aviation, and seeing the numbers come in a positive way. Business people are giving us a go, compared to 12 months ago, and that is incredible energising.

My feet are pretty firmly on the ground. I am passionate about great service, my eyes are everywhere for examples of brilliance – in non-work time, too – in retail and restaurants, hospitality in its broadest sense. What can we learn to do differently?

If our people did not work for us, they would be in high-end hospitality. I am working with people aligned to our service vision.

Thinking ahead, how important will the CCO role be?

Anything to do with customer and service is a continual journey. It does not come to an end – they never stop. A business will win if its stays ahead of the curve. The CCO is not a role where the company says let’s infuse everyone with customer service zeal for five years, and then revert to operations. It is an every day role if a company wants to be relevant in product development.

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