Career profile: Mark Hassell, chief customer officer, Virgin Australia

From part-time flight attendant to executive at Virgin Australia responsible for the brand, marketing and end-to-end customer experience, Mark Hassell talks to Marketing about career, managing change and being in high-end hospitality.

 

Mark Hassell’s first taste of the airline business was as a part-time flight attendant, a job he took to pay his way through university. From there, he never looked back.

Okay, that’s not completely true. There was the five-year stint in branch banking, but Hassell realised that wasn’t for him. The bug had bit, but as much as he was enjoying flying in his early twenties, he decided he didn’t want things to stay up in the air.

An encounter with British Airways’ brand marketing group exposed him to a group of young marketers with “lots of energy and enthusiasm and passion,” giving him an insight into the marketing world that he describes as ‘energising’. It was all about change (a theme we’ll come back to) and customers (ditto) and bringing about new customer experiences to help win against BA’s competitors. Hassell says it was an incredible introduction to what turned out to be a passion he had in his heart.

At the turn of the millennium, Hassell moved down under for the first time, taking on the role with Qantas as general manager, brands, before switching to the equivalent position in his old (part-time) stomping ground: cabin crew. There he led a 7500-strong domestic and international cabin crew team through productivity change programs, something that would become entwined to his future positions.

After six years at Qantas, Hassell took on the role of general manager of inflight service worldwide at British Airways, which turned into head of customer experience, before it eventuated in early 2012 that he would join Virgin Australia as general manager, brand and customer strategy, as the company was going through a monumental change process – a move he says was never in his plans.

In the above career path, describing an airline pedigree, a few words stick out – ‘service’, ‘customer’, ‘experience’ – that perhaps culminate in where Hassell now finds himself: as Virgin Australia’s chief customer officer.

Marketing: We wanted to ask about your title first off – what brought about the adoption of the terminology ‘chief customer officer’? Is it different to a CMO role, or is it more a reflection of today’s updated CMO?

Hassell: Well, the role has been created to primarily create a customer voice around the executive committee table. So really, what that provides for is an opportunity with, for example, the chief financial officer and the chief operations officer, to ensure that the customer sits right in the middle of the discussions around strategic direction and decisions that we need to make. And really what’s at the heart of it is to ensure that, organisationally, the customer and the brand collectively sit centrally in the organisational design. And in so doing, it’s allowing us to slowly continue the journey that we’re on in building the brand externally, but it’s also ensuring that we can build the brand internally as well.

Do you consider yourself a marketer?

Me, personally? I would consider myself a marketer, but ostensibly, I’m a customer champion, which, in my mind, needs to be a strong brand advocate and ensure that both components of my role work in a symbiotic and integrated way. There isn’t much point in going out creating strong and effective brand messages if they can’t be substantiated through the products you deliver or the service that you design, and the consistency with which you can deliver it.

From my perspective my remit brings all that together. I can have greater confidence that what I’m going out saying, what the business is going out saying, can be strongly substantiated.

Having worked on the front lines, so to speak, do you still call on that experience in your role now?

Yeah, I do. I think having worked on the front line is a huge privilege. It’s a brilliant opportunity to see the business in action and to fundamentally understand what the opportunities are and what the challenges are. My career, about 10 years ago, broadened to take on management challenges, so I headed up the flight attendant division at Qantas, and I came back to London to do the same at British Airways. So having done the job and then done the division was hugely helpful to me because I could get an insight and an understanding of the day in the life of the team that I was leading.

I think the other thing is it really is useful for me to understand how to make change happen when you have got an insight into the mechanics of the operation and you understand the complexities of an airline, but also the potential and the dynamism of the industry.

So now in a management role, when hiring do you look for people with, not necessarily flight attendant experience, but customer service roles of any kind?

I look for the right talent for the right job, really. I certainly feel the people who have got some front line experience in service, because it’s a hospitality business that we’re in, I think is good. I think it gives people a sense of connectivity with the actual physical product and service that’s being designed and delivered. You get an empathy with your people; I think you’ve got a real opportunity to build very positive relationships because you’ve got a degree of understanding of that.

I don’t think it’s the only credential you need, at all, to be honest, it’s not necessarily something everybody needs to have. But, in my experience, I think people who have, certainly in their earlier days, had some exposure to front line customer service it is very helpful.

It’s interesting you mention the word ‘hospitality’. Do you think that is something that’s forgotten in the industry – that it is a hospitality service?

Coming to Virgin, the single biggest thing that struck me on day one was the sheer passion and commitment and genuine warmth and friendliness of the team, and I was really quite bowled over by it, to be honest.

When you’re going to take on a low-cost model and move it into a full-service business, that’s a journey that the whole organisation has got to go on, and from my perspective, the people are already there. Lots of our team, if they didn’t work for us, would be in high-end hospitality somewhere. The criteria of selection in the business has been very smart, and has definitely brought in hospitality professionals who want to go above and beyond for all of our customers, which is fantastic to see.

Regarding the rebrand, and as you mentioned it was moving from the low-cost Virgin Blue to the more premium Virgin Australia brand. That’s interesting to me because under the larger Virgin umbrella it’s obviously got that cheeky, irreverent Richard Branson-type personality, which seems to work quite readily in a no-frills airline, but with that step towards the full-service and ‘glamorous’ model, I guess that’s got to create some challenges balancing the different aspects of the brand?

I think you’re right. It’s important to remember, though, that the Virgin brand straddles lots of different sectors and lots of different markets – if you consider Virgin Atlantic, that very much fights hard in a premium airline, three-cabin competitive sector, and does very well with that. From our point of view, the critical thing was substantiation.

The absolutely brilliant thing was that our people were already there, and actually to give everybody a brand new uniform so that they could not only feel the part but they could look the part, was a huge opportunity and a huge kind of step change attitudinally for everybody. But we also then implemented very quickly a range of products and services that genuinely meet the needs of the corporate business sector to demonstrate the brand repositioning credentials pretty early on.

We ran an ad in May of last year which was when the corporate identity came out, which was all about the promise of bringing the magic back into flying, because at that stage the journey of change was just starting, and very, very quickly what was launched was wide-bodied aeroplanes to Perth, full service business class offering, uniforms, training for our people, lounges, a whole range of change that very quickly came down the pipe that were very much at the heart of associating the premium credentials that without a doubt we were setting out to promise.

The second ad that we did very recently was saying that the promise has been delivered. When we went into all of that, what absolutely in my mind needed to be front and centre was we had to hero our people because the work they have done and the way they have played their part in truly being an energised asset for this change program, needed to be brought across.

There are very few occasions – in fact, I can’t think of an occasion in my mind – where customers talk to me and they don’t say, “And by the way, your people are brilliant”.

Back on your career, have you had any particular mentors that have really inspired you? Specific lessons that you keep with you?

Yes, I have actually. There are mentors that I’ve had in my career: people who at the time showed you different ways to do things that were not self-evident, and at the time, possibly I didn’t pick up on. But surely afterwards, I reflected on it and I got it. I’ve been very blessed, actually, that I have worked with some incredibly inspirational people through very positive times in the industry and some pretty challenging times in the industry. But a combination of technical skills and effective leadership credentials has been very much something I’ve been fortunate enough to be exposed to, which has been great.

On an individual level, what do you do to keep abreast of changes in your industry and your profession from a self-education point of view?

I think really, from an industry perspective, it’s not that big, actually, which might sound a bit daft, but it isn’t that big, and you get a sense of what’s going on pretty quickly. From our point of view, within the last 18 months, we’ve got anti-trust immunity now [allowing the parties to coordinate more closely] with Etihad, Singapore and Air New Zealand, and a deep relationship with Delta. So even for an airline who 85, 90 percent of our business is domestic, we’ve got some pretty strong international relationships that are deepening by the week.

That’s in addition to the networking relationship that we build over the years as well. And that’s not just through an airline executive perspective, it’s also through the supplier base and the partnership base over the years. It’s not that difficult to stay in touch with what’s happening, and I always make sure that I keep one eye firmly focused on where the whole industry is going – not just airlines, I think that’s the important thing.

When you look at things like the transformation of service in lots of different sectors and the role of technology and the change in consumer behaviour, all of that, there is no reason why the airline industry needs to be 20 years behind.

This is why I talk about innovation and entrepreneurialism and inverting it. The brand allows us to challenge the convention, to an extent. So I make sure that I don’t kind of keep my eye on aviation – which in the main doesn’t tend to shift dramatically from one year to the next – I try and keep perhaps an even keener eye on other areas of hospitality, high-end hospitality in particular, and customer service, and really look at where the innovative thinking is coming from.

Tell me about Velocity, and the relationship between it and Virgin Australia.

Velocity is very much part of our business, a central part of our business, and one that’s got increasing importance, huge importance to us. We’ve recently appointed a chief executive to run that business, Neil Thompson, and Neil and I work very closely because he’s come in at a time when we’re seeing the Velocity program grow significantly, very significantly, and his greater projections are very, very encouraging.

From his perspective, the dialogue the chief customer officer has with the CEO of Velocity is very much around how we drive loyalty and advocacy to a greater extent, and the role of the program in being able to help us fully exercise that.

SAS: Do you have any examples of where you’re leveraging analytics to make proactive decisions, as opposed to a straight reporting point of view?

I think with programs such as this, the opportunity to fully utilise your database in a responsible way is a sensible thing to do from the perspective of ‘how can we use what people are telling us in the most effective way to tailor our thinking and tailor our customer strategy going forward?’ How do we want to use those – the depth and breadth of the knowledge of the database with emerging technology so that throughout the journey process, from contemplation to reflection, we can be more targeted and more individualised in the service experiences that we can create. The program provides a rich source of potential for us in being able to do that.

If you could give yourself, as a young marketer, any advice, what would it be?

Very good question. My advice would be get to know your customer, understand the industry, think the unthinkable, push the boundaries and bring everybody with you in making it happen.

Is there any one career high and low that stand out?

Well, the career high is joining Virgin Australia, because it wasn’t part of my plan, and I’m very glad that it is. So for that to be part of this change program is terrific actually.

I’m very blessed in the sense that I haven’t had a career low, to be honest. I’ve stayed in the industry because I’ve found it constantly full of energy both through the good times and the not-too-good times, and I haven’t stopped learning, which I’m very fortunate to be able to say.