Marcus Banks, Virgin Media’s Executive Director of Customer Experience on innovation, consumer trends and competing for consumer attention
Marcus has been with Virgin Media since early 2007, holding mainly commercial and customer experience roles. Prior to Virgin Media, he spent three years as Strategy Director at Lloyds TSB Group and seven years as a strategy consultant with The Boston Consulting Group. He lives in Hampshire with his wife, four boys and two dogs.
What do you think will drive cable’s priorities for marketing as we look at the state of the industry in 2015?
Certainly our biggest priority is to keep growing the business. Virgin Media had a very good year last year and maintaining that momentum is crucial for us. Even better, I believe we are growing in the right way by continuing to build our position in the highly competitive market for new customers while at the same time reducing churn and encouraging our existing customers to stay longer and be more engaged with our products and services. The UK market has probably never been as competitive as it is right now. In terms of broadband, our marketing challenge is all about defining and communicating clearly what our superiority is and how it translates into better ways to meet consumer needs. Our most recent campaign for example is all about Virgin Media being the best for (OTT video) streaming, both because of the speed available and because concurrent broadband consumption in the home is a better experience with us.
What are the big emerging consumer trends?
I’ve already mentioned data consumption. And that won’t be news to anyone in our industry. But the growth rates in data consumption over the last year – and the concentration of that growth in services like Netflix – just stuns me. Data usage on the Virgin Media network is currently growing at a rate of 60% every year which, if this trend continues, will be 10,000% higher in ten years. It’s just so exciting to be part of a business the consumer need for which is growing at that sort of rate.
Device proliferation is another trend. Recent OFCOM data says that 46% of UK consumers now have tablets and 63% have connected smartphones. 60% of Virgin Media customers have three or more devices connected to their home broadband, up from 37% a year ago. And as OEMs get better and better at creating new device categories – and sub-segmenting existing categories (‘phablets’ anyone?) – we will see more and more consumers with multiple devices. This must present our industry with interesting opportunities to bundle devices with traditional services and/or help solve consumer problems around connectivity to local networks, seamless profile management and movement of content and data between devices.
What are your biggest priorities for customer experience at Virgin Media?
For me, great customer experience comes from getting three things right: product, service and value for money. I am pleased to say that for third year running we have just been voted Best Broadband Provider in the UK by consumers and industry experts in the uSwitch.com Awards. uSwitch said: “Virgin has hit upon the holy trinity of speed, cost and customer service, year after year winning over broadband users and impressing industry experts.”
There are four things we are focused on to drive our customer experience forward from here. First, we use Net Promoter Score (NPS) across the whole business to keep track of how customers are experiencing us. All of our employees have some element of their compensation tied directly to NPS. Given that our customers’ experience of us is made up of millions of phone calls, install and service visits, web site visits as well as each time they switch on the TV or use their home network, home phone or mobile, we have to stay focused across all aspects of customer experience delivery, and NPS helps with this.
Secondly, I am firm believer that we need to focus more and more on our customers’ own networks and not just our network, and on our customers’ devices, not just ours. Long gone are the days when cable companies could just drill a few holes in the wall, connect up a few cables to a set top box and modem, and then move on to the next install job. What our customers really care about is a great home network, with reliable WiFi coverage wherever they need it in the home, and simple connectivity to their devices. That means we need to spend more time consulting with customers on how and where they will use connected devices in their home, how to solve coverage issues, and so on.
Third, we continue to focus on our behaviours as a critical driver of customer experience. Through our NPS insight, we realised some time ago that how we behave towards customers is often much more important than whether we actually resolve their issue or concern. So, we put a lot of effort into behavioural training and coaching, and we carefully track customer perceptions of how we are behaving. This sort of thing is not that expensive either, especially compared to upgrading broadband speeds or rolling out new set top boxes. As a Virgin brand I believe we have more permission from customers to be friendly and build rapport with customers, even being a bit cheeky when it’s appropriate. For a few years now we have been running our ‘Random acts of kindness’ programme. This allows our front-line agents to nominate customers for special gifts from us. One of the more famous examples was when an agent had been speaking to a customer and realised that she was lying in the bath while on the phone to us to check her bill! The agent then organised for us to send the customer a Virgin Media rubber duck. It’s a cute programme in its own right, and doesn’t cost much to run. But the biggest benefit to us is that it encourages agents to listen to customers and build rapport with them.
Finally, I am a big believer in the power of marketing to our own customers and not just to sell them more products and services. We now have a programme of communication activities that is focused solely on letting customers know what they are getting for their money and how they could get even more out of them. Again, we use deep NPS insight to guide us on which particular product or service benefits we should promote to customers.
Where are you innovating most on products?
Obviously in broadband. Speed leadership is a crucial part of our market strategy, so we continue to invest and innovate here. The plan is working: our 152Mb broadband product offers twice the speed of any widely available service from any major provider, and our average 152Mb Virgin Media household uses almost double the amount of data as the national average – 112Gb rather than 58Gb. And we are not just innovating on core network stuff but also things like WiFi router development to ensure speed leadership translates into in-home experience leadership. As mentioned above, innovating on the service side will help us to reinforce the superiority of our broadband product too. In TV, innovation is focused on delivering better video on demand mainly to meet consumers’ growing needs for box set viewing.
In your view, is the way you tackle customer experience in the UK unique to that market? How would you describe the typical Virgin Media customer?
No I don’t believe that the way we tackle the customer experience here in the UK is unique. We spend a lot of time with our Liberty Global colleagues discussing many of the same opportunities and challenges.
I really am not sure I could describe the typical Virgin Media customer. We are a mass market player and the UK is pretty diverse place. That’s why I sometimes insist that my job title isn’t ‘Customer Experience’ but ‘Customers’ Experiences’…! Seriously, there is always a temptation in a business like ours for managers to look at problems from their own perspective or the perspective of people like them. Sometimes it’s not until you spend time with customers or our colleagues who help customers day in and day out that you stumble across the insights that can make a difference.
What does Virgin Media do better than its competition from a marketing and engagement standpoint?
Virgin Media is heavily outspent by our biggest competitors – SKY and BT. Despite this we consistently achieve better Awareness and Consideration scores. We do this by following a rigorous communications model that tries to shake passive consumers out of their inertia (for example, by dressing up Usain Bolt in a dress in a recent TV ad) and then following up with clear, benefits-led demonstrations of our products and services. We use online channels to amplify this demonstration. And finally we ensure these campaigns live through the line and are embedded into multiple touch points. I think we are also very good at carefully using big sponsorship opportunities like the V Festivals and our recent lead role in the Glasgow Commonwealth Games.
What strategies does cable need in order to effectively compete for consumer attention in a hyper-connected world?
I am convinced the market is moving towards us as consumers’ data consumption grows exponentially. So to exploit that, we have to keep shouting that we have the best broadband. And we have to keep our broadband at least two steps ahead of the competition, in terms of raw speed, reliability, service support, etc.
As our stuff – superfast broadband, connected TV – becomes more and more experiential, encouraging positive word of mouth is key to getting attention. My marketing colleagues don’t mind me saying that I would much rather our 5m cable households did our marketing job for us. Just after we launched our TV Anywhere iPad service here, I witnessed my own 5-year old son showing our neighbour (and BT customer) how cool it was, especially how much he enjoyed using it to change the channel on the TV from another room while his younger brother was watching something! That sort of thing is priceless marketing.