Customer-focused talent at Virgin Trains

Written by
Changeboard Team

26 Feb 2015

26 Feb 2015 • by Changeboard Team

Giving back to customers

With around 3,200 employees, Virgin Trains operates long-distance passenger services on the West Coast Main Line from its central London terminus at Euston to the West Midlands, north-west England, North Wales and Scotland. 

When Virgin Trains lost the franchise to run the UK West Coast Main Line in 2012, the company was overwhelmed by the support it received from customers who compiled an e-petition, gathering more than 100,000 signatures for the franchise to be reinstated. 

The petition was successful and Virgin Trains was awarded the franchise until 2017. Since then, the organisation’s mission has moved away from a traditional customer service approach towards developing ‘customer experience’. A significant part of this has involved a refresh of the company’s brand values. 

Here, head of talent Gaynor Stewart and deputy HR director Amanda Hines describe the journey to inject these values into the employee experience. 

“We wanted to give something back to our customers,” explains Stewart. “And for our customers to feel connected and loyal to us, we know it all starts with our people.”

What are the Virgin Trains brand values?

GS: We have six – doing the right thing; with heart; daringly bold; red hot; insatiable curiosity and delightfully surprising. The narrative that goes around these values means something to the business as our people have helped to create it. 

How did you come up with them? 

GS: A couple of years ago Virgin Group reviewed its brand values and came up with an internal brand promise: “Don’t just play the game, change it for good.” It then asked us to consider how that would work across Virgin Trains. 

The gauntlet was set for our head of brand, Natasha Grice, to examine the brand values. She did focus groups with everyone in the business to establish what our internal brand strapline would look like, and asked our people whether the new values resonated with them. We created an internal strap: “Screw average, create amazing.” It gives us a measure so we can check everything against it, and means something across the business – it reflects Richard Branson’s ‘screw business as usual’ ethos, which forms the basis of many of his books. 


How do you benchmark behaviours and values?

AH: We want to integrate the values into the muscle of the business so that people understand what they are about, believe in them and feel them. For us, it is really important to focus on positive behaviours, supporting people and helping them grow. 

This year, we’re introducing a new reward and recognition system called ‘Incredible’ (with an emphasis on the ‘red’ part) and, as part of this, we will be looking at how people are doing against our brand values. 

In preparation for this, our internal brand team developed a mobile app called ‘Create Amazing’, which encourages people to share stories about how colleagues are living the brand values. This way, we can see how much they are permeating through the business. While we’ve always been good at recognising the exceptional, this is about appreciating the everyday. 

We want individuals who are demonstrating the brand behaviours to be spoken about. If you think someone’s gone above and beyond, you can send them ‘red creds’ (rewards points), which they can then redeem against an experience. 

GS: There are 1,000 stories on the Create Amazing app, from managers to their direct reports, direct reports to their managers, from peer to peer and to the supply chain (which includes people like our cleaners). Each week we pick out some worthy winners and give them a ‘delightfully surprising’ award that means something to them. To appreciate someone, you need to understand what makes them tick. This is the road test for Incredible – we wanted to start with baby steps to get people into the mindset of celebrating each other.

AH: We hope the platform will deliver us a load of smart data to help us increase our engagement scores in the areas that require it. This will enable us to do some proper analysis to help us with talent retention. 

How do you recruit talent?

GS: In our front line people roles, we’re moving away from online advertising and form filling to align with our messaging that we recruit for attitude, personality and behaviours (things a form cannot show you). 

Rather than advertising online, which previously would have attracted more than 1,000 applications for one role, we now hold regular recruitment roadshows and invite people (around 300 at a time) to visit our Talent Academy in Crewe. 

It’s all about having fun in the recruitment process. Candidates introduce themselves, undertake speed dating-style interviews and record video interviews about what our brand values mean to them. Then, we start making decisions – we can tell quickly if people are comfortable putting themselves out of their comfort zone, can talk to strangers, and build relationships quickly. 

After this, candidates are invited to a more focused recruitment event where they come to Euston station at 5am to travel on a journey. We ask them to talk to customers, and think about something they can do on the return journey that will ‘create amazing’, and that’s how we measure them. 

We also have a team of ‘talent spotters’ and ‘meeters and greeters’, who are Virgin Trains staff. If our talent spotters are in their region and see someone they think is amazing, they give the person a card that says they’ve been talent spotted and ask them to email us their CV. 

Then, they’re hooked up with a meeter and greeter who takes them on a train and shows them around a station. The talent spotter and meeter and greeter decide whether that person should join us. 

Does the central recruitment team get involved in this? 

GS: No, we want regions to own the talent. It all links into engagement – we want people to feel empowered and have responsibility over what happens in their part of the business. We’ve seen some great success with it and it also helps our talent pipelining. We’ve got some great banks of external candidates just waiting for the right opportunity to come up so we can pull them in. It’s a more proactive way of doing it and we can think about it in advance. 

How do you develop future talent pipelines?

AH: We work with the Prince’s Trust on the ‘Get into Transport’ programme, which helps unemployed people get work experience to help them find a job. At the end of the programme, we aim to take on some participants as apprentices. 

We also work with Career Academies UK, which is a national charity that links up schools and colleges with employers to help prepare young people for the world of work. We created a six-week internship programme for them over the summer, starting with two weeks of exposure to every Virgin Trains department. At the end of this, we asked them to choose which area they wanted to experience in the following four weeks. After great success with this, we thought, ‘wouldn’t it be great if the interns were a feeder into an undergraduate programme’? So, in conjunction with Manchester Metropolitan University, we came up with a three-year business masters combining work experience with us alongside study. We currently have 10 people going through this. 

GS: We want participants to leave as well-rounded individuals. They get money management skills from our finance team and ‘grow up’ within the Virgin culture, so we would be looking for them to go into supervisory roles. Previously our graduates have been very theory-led but lacked the hands-on delivery experience. This way, they get a combination of both.

We can see their potential, recognise their strengths and predict where they might end up if they stay with us – and we can develop and grow that.

What other groups do you support in this way?

GS: At Euston, we needed some extra people to help our vulnerable customers with their luggage, so we decided to work with a local homeless charity. We got people in, kitted them out with resources to be able to enter the workplace and, after the project, ended up hiring two of them. 

It’s a small thing but it’s starting to make a big impact, not just on those individuals whose lives we have turned around but on our employees too. Feedback has been great – they are feeling much more attached to the business and recognise that this is a great place to work. 

People are thinking: ‘we can do something amazing, we can start shaping what’s going on in our communities.’ 

What progression opportunities do you offer?

GS: If someone wants to progress, we’ll talk to them about what that might look like and support them with relevant development opportunities. We also provide secondments so people can dip their toes in other parts of the business. 

We step people up a lot – over the past few years we have had the West Coast and East Coast bid, so have stepped people up while others have been working on the bids. 

We recognise that technology is a powerful tool to help us measure the performance of our mobile workforce, who are often disparate. So a train manager could do a one-to-one with a crew member and send this through to central services using technology, where it can be collated. 

This will help us have a more joined-up approach on performance and identify the star performers who we want to succession plan in the future. And if they don’t want to progress, we can look at ways to stretch them in their current roles. 

AH: We have also re-organised our talent team so that we have regional talent partners working together with regional HR business partners to understand and support our people. 

What’s your key objective for 2015? 

AH: We’ve been trying to understand what our legacy is from a social purpose and connect our work as a transport operator back into the community. 

We’ve had support of Business in the Community (BITC) and now have 43 community champions across the West Coast Main Line. 

We’ve decided to focus a lot of our work around youth under the four BITC quadrants of workplace, marketplace, community and environment. 

Under these pillars we will launch a range of initiatives this year, underpinned by the “your responsible journey starts here” strapline. 

Describe the culture of Virgin Trains

GS: Fun, energetic, hard work, agile, challenging, empowered. In a command and control environment, that’s hard to work well in. We’re the opposite. 

We want our crew members to have fun with customers, inject their personality into their day job and make that customer experience. 

You don’t need to seek permission to upgrade a passenger if it’s a celebration, for example. 

One guy did a quiz for standard-class passengers and rewarded the winners with tea and biscuits. It’s about creating a varied working life and delighting customers while having fun.

Amanda Hines, deputy HR director

Amanda HinesAmanda began her career with British Rail and has worked across all disciplines of HR. She has been with Virgin Trains since its inception in 1997. Her current role involves supporting the HR team, the group of HRBPs, regional, information and data teams, and dealing with CSR and occupational health.

Gaynor Stewart, head of talent

Gaynor StewartWith a background in hospitality, Gaynor has 15 years’ experience in HR and has been with Virgin Trains since 2004. She manages the Talent Academy in Cheshire, guiding the strategic direction of the recruitment, training and development department and scouting future talent for the business.