Virgin Atlantic and how to over-recover Detractors

All of this talk about the United Airlines customer experience fiasco reminded me of the opposite experience Virgin once gave a colleague…

Don’t be afraid to over-recover Detractors

When I joined the Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) Software Product Group at the European HQ in Geneva, we had to travel regularly to Boston. There were no direct flights, and we tried a variety of airlines. The team favorite quickly became the relatively new Virgin Atlantic. To get to Boston, we transited via London’s Gatwick airport. We all loved the airline’s ‘Upper Class’ and were rabid promoters, often asking other colleagues why they would go any other way. I am sure we contributed lots of money to the Virgin bottom line.

After about a year of this, one of my colleagues, Peter van de Moosdijk, had a relatively serious incident. His flight from Boston to London was delayed for three hours due to a technical issue. Virgin realized that it was the middle of the night back in Europe and handed out a form for each passenger to fill in, saying whom they wanted Virgin to contact in the morning and what they should say. Peter filled out his form, and boarded the delayed flight happy that his wife would know that he was going to miss the connection in London and would take a later flight. I suppose I should add that I believe this was in 1993, so well before you could easily send your own messages from an airport.

Peter phoned home on arriving in Gatwick, and spoke to his panicking wife, who had been to Geneva airport to pick him up, and had heard nothing. The following day, Peter wrote a (paper) letter to Virgin’s CEO, Richard Branson, recounting what had happened and saying that this was not what he had grown to expect.

Amazing reactions from Virgin Atlantic
Three things then followed. I particularly like the first:

  1. A few days later, the doorbell rang while Peter was at work and his wife was at home. Virgin had sent her a huge bouquet of flowers and a card with an apology. I feel this demonstrated a rare level of insight about who actually had the problem. Not their customer.
  2. The following day, a letter arrived, apparently signed by Richard Branson (or someone who could copy his signature). He said that what had happened was unacceptable, and that he had sent a copy of Peter’s letter to every Virgin office in the world to ensure it would never happen again.
  3. At the time, Virgin was the only European airline with a frequent flyer program. Peter’s account was credited with enough miles for his family to go on vacation in California the following summer.

A Detractor immediately became an avid Promoter
Now that’s over-recovery. Rather than talking about the negatives, Peter, his colleagues and friends all wound up being Promoters, telling this story over and over again. Our manager even attended a customer experience event hosted by British Airways. He asked whether any of the BA people had flown with Virgin and they had not. Then he told the story. Silence in the room.


Selectively over-recovering your Detractors can be a great tactic. Even before the advent of social media, we all spread the word. With modern technology, we could have helped Richard Branson to take over the world.

This is an edited version of one of many stories told in the books below. This particular one is from the Net Promoter System book. Our books are now available as paperbacks too.

You can find links to the major Amazon stores on our books page, here.