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Why Richard Branson Once Prank-Called His Own Company Demanding To Speak To Richard Branson

Why Richard Branson Once Prank-Called His Own Company Demanding To Speak To Richard Branson
StrategyStrategy3 min read

richard branson

Robert Galbraith/Reuters

Virgin chairman Richard Branson, dressed as a priest for a press event, makes a call at the San Francisco International Airport.

As chair of the massive Virgin Group, Richard Branson can't possibly stay on top of everything going on at each of his companies, which include airlines, a mobile service provider, and an upcoming hotel chain.

But to ensure that his customer service employees are maintaining his vision for the company, he'll sometimes reach out to customers or pretend to be a customer himself, he explains in his new book "The Virgin Way: Everything I Know About Leadership."

One time, he writes, he even tried masking his voice on a customer service call to one of his companies, demanding to be put in touch with - who else? - Richard Branson. He writes:

I am so pathetically bad at imitating someone else's voice that Penni, my trusted assistant for many years, sat there and let me make a complete fool of myself with some trumped-up complaint before saying, "Well, thank you so much for sharing all that with me, sir. Let me see if Mr. Branson is available to take your call." She then kept me hanging on for what seemed like an eternity - it was probably a couple of minutes - before coming back on the line to say, "Sorry, Richard, but you appear to be out of the office at the moment, can someone else help you?" before dissolving into howls of laughter.

While he tells the story for a laugh, Branson makes a valuable point. Whether you're an executive at a major corporation or the founder of a startup, you should never get so caught up in management and business strategy that you forget that you're providing a product or service for the benefit of customers.

To that end, it's not a bad idea to occasionally check up on your customer service staff by giving them a call and seeing how they handle your questions.

Start by going to your company's website, Branson says:

So when you're playing customer, one of the first things to do is to try and locate a phone number to call on your website that will enable you to get through to a real human being. If you can find the number - most organisations foolishly bury a contact number in some deep dark corner of the website after "Contact Us" has led you nowhere except back to the webpage you started on - try calling it and count how many recorded options, pre-screens and hand-offs you are forced through before you (perhaps) get to a real person.

The Virgin Way Branson jacket

Courtesy of Portfolio

Branson's new book.

If they handle your problem well, consider identifying yourself as the boss, he says, and praise them for their efforts. And if the experience is a nightmare, consider contacting their supervisor and explaining that they'll need to address the issue with their team.

Branson says he used to regularly cold call Virgin Atlantic business-class customers to ask about their experience.

He also writes down observations about his own experiences as a Virgin customer, such as when he noted that he and fellow Virgin America passengers didn't want a hot towel offered to them on a scorching Las Vegas day. He took that bit to management and had the policy changed to having cold towels offered on hot days.

Branson writes that in his many years of business experience, he has found that unhappy customers who have a problem handled quickly and effectively end up being more loyal than if they never had a problem at all.