Good PR for your HR won’t compensate for a poor Customer Experience

This month, telecoms giant Virgin Media O2, announced that it would pay for employee gender transitions offering staff free gender transition therapy in order to provide “support and allyship to people from marginalised communities”. Philipp Wohland, Virgin Media O2’s People and Transformation Officer, said: “Our purpose is to upgrade the UK; that’s not just through our leading products and services, it’s by the type of company we want to be and the role we play in society”. 

Supporting people from marginalised communities is a noble and much-needed effort inside and outside the commercial world. And when a brand that offers a leading customer experience invests in the lives of the employees responsible for delivering that customer experience, the world stands up and takes notice. Take Zappos for example; it is the epitome of a brand that sees its customer and employee experience as inextricably linked. Zappos’ purpose is ‘Delivering Happiness’. However, without a clear brand purpose and stand out customer experience, announcements like Virgin Media O2’s can become very jarring for the customer, shining a spotlight upon every step of the brand’s CX because they are clearly not providing “leading products and services”.

Things just don’t match up…

Virgin Media O2 was formed from the merger of O2 and Virgin Media in 2021. Previous to this, O2 was the market leader in terms of service, though Virgin Media had consistently underperformed in this regard. For O2 customers, the merger does not seem to have been a bed of roses. And not even a funny Sean Bean ad could sweeten the seemingly downgraded customer experience they now face.

Last year Ofcom reported that Virgin Media customers faced an average wait of nearly eight minutes to speak to an operator – the longest of any telecoms company, and in early 2022, waited more than 20 minutes to speak to a staff member – only for calls to be cut off once connected. But it gets worse. In March 2022 the company raised prices for all customers by an average of £60 a year and customers coming to the end of their contracts report price rises of nearly 50 per cent.

Unfortunately for the customers of Virgin Media O2, the spirit of generosity that the brand shows some of its staff, does nothing to gloss over a poor customer experience. The sceptic may accuse the brand leaders of practising ‘wokewashing’ hoping to shine up their image with a caring gesture to transgender staff.

Virgin O2 have to be very careful not to drive a gap between their employee experience and their customer experience. Otherwise, this chasm will cast a shadow on the very purpose of the brand itself.

Connect the dots or fail

Your company purpose should create value in three ways:

1. Brand – creating value for customers first, and employees second.

2. Commercial – creating value for stakeholders and executives.

3. Social – creating value for broader society.

The best brands balance these and see them as connected. But stand-out brand leaders believe that the only place to start is with the Brand Purpose, creating value for your customers and employees; not with the Commercial or Social Purpose. If you start by creating value first and foremost for your customers, it inevitably leads to commercial success and shareholder returns. And if you do this in a way which is socially responsible, including being sensitive to the needs of the trans-community, you can sustain success long-term.

Virgin’s purpose boldly states that very reason they exist is ‘to change business for good’. Considering what could be criticised as the vast ocean between their focus on the customer experience and their social agenda, they might want to revisit the definitions of the word ‘good’ and indeed the notion of ‘business’ before they boast about what they are doing for their staff to their customers.

Photo credit: Mikael Seegen

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