How a new company treats its customers is often the deciding factor in whether it will be successful. Great businesses—the ones who have gotten it right—are good at turning customers into advocates for their companies. This means that their marketing efforts are supported by customer word-of-mouth and positive comments on review sites and social media channels—some of the most important influences on people’s buying habits today.

Many of the world’s most successful businesses provide terrific customer service. I recently wrote about the profound impact that Apple co-founder Steve Jobs had on our lives through the technology his company developed. But the adulation some of Apple’s established customers have for the brand and its products is not only a result of the company’s ground-breaking innovations; those products were backed by top-notch customer service. Apple employees are known to be energetic and knowledgeable, which ensures that few people have a bad experience at an Apple store, and most return to buy the latest device.

Customers wait in front of a spice retailer at a spice market in Mumbai

I was recently reminded of how important customer service is for all businesses, both new and established, when I visited Virgin America to open their training simulator in Burlingame, California, just outside San Francisco. At Virgin, where our brand is built on the promise of providing terrific service, our flight crews are our most important asset—without them we would be just another airline. The new $1 million (Rs 5 crore) simulator is crucial to our expansion plans.

Not every business needs to build a training facility; indeed, many do not need high-tech solutions. But after reconnecting with the team at Virgin America and seeing how they go about training their new employees, I came away with three key lessons that can be applied at any company, whether it is a Virgin operation or the start-up you’re planning to launch.

• An investment in your employees is an investment in your company.

All airlines must ensure that everyone on staff, from pilots to ground workers, have rigorous operational, safety, security and even medical training, but at Virgin America, that’s just the beginning. Our staff must also complete a broader immersion in brand values through a two-day annual “brand bath", which the company calls Refresh. At those retreats, they focus on improving customer experience across the airline.

The flight crews are brought together with colleagues from different departments and trained in conflict resolution, hospitality and emotional intelligence training. The programme is designed to help employees to truly understand the customer’s perspective; to resolve issues and not push them up the chain.

As an entrepreneur, how can you bring your team together to solve problems and build their trust in each other? At a small business or start-up, this might be accomplished with a low-tech solution, like starting a tradition of eating lunch together and talking about how work is progressing.

• Lead from the front.

At Refresh, David Cush, the CEO of Virgin America, often holds question-and-answer sessions with employees to ensure that he personally addresses their concerns. This is the first step in building bonds between front-line staff and senior managers, which helps to create easy and open communications.

At other companies, executives and managers who want to learn how to improve their operations must step away from their desks and get to know their staff. If your company is too big for regular meetings, spending a few hours handling customer complaints yourself or working on the factory floor will help you to understand what’s really going on and also to break down the silos that can emerge in some businesses.

• Make sure employees have the tools they need to succeed.

The training at Refresh teaches Virgin America employees to learn how to solve problems on their own—a key to great customer service. This is an unusual approach; most businesses impose restrictions on their staff in terms of the types of problems employees can solve and the authority they have to do so. But our experience shows that the best solution is to provide people with the skills and confidence they need to deal with problems on their own, without sticking to a script or following a flow-chart.

Most often, what’s missing is information. If, in your meetings with your staff or during your time on the factory floor, you notice that employees are groping for answers, it is time to take action. Remove limits on access to databases; invest in new information technology; do whatever it takes to make sure that they can take initiative on their own. Celebrate successes in internal communications to encourage others.

In tough times, when your competitors are cutting costs, it might be tempting to follow their lead and cut back on customer service. But remember that slashing prices is not the only solution. Every customer is valuable; in the long term, a thriving company is built on relationships, not just the bottom line.

BY NYT Syndicate

©2011/Richard Branson

Richard Branson is the founder of the Virgin Group and companies such as Virgin Atlantic, Virgin America, Virgin Mobile and Virgin Active. He maintains a blog at

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