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Never put profit before people

Published: 
Thursday, April 27, 2017

Why do I start businesses? The answer is the same today as it was when I launched my first company five decades ago: to make a positive difference in people’s lives. I believe that companies should have a similar desire at their core, no matter what industry they’re in.

Our team at Virgin has always kept this in mind whenever we’ve entered a new sector. Take the airline industry. We built three beloved airlines—Virgin Atlantic, Virgin Australia and Virgin America—based on the belief that passengers deserved better. We feel that when people choose an airline, they deserve courtesy and care. They also deserve respect and an amazing experience. They certainly do not deserve to be treated like numbers on a balance sheet, or like cattle in a cabin.

Sadly, not every business shares this viewpoint. (I’m sure you can think of one or two you’ve recently read about without me having to name them).

Companies like these tend to put profit before people and they will ultimately be found out. Every company and business leader makes mistakes. I’ve made more than my fair share, and I know I’ll make more. The good news is that if you face them head on, move fast and have a strong company culture in place, you can recover from any setback.

Maintaining a strong company culture begins with putting people first, and that requires heartfelt service. Allowing your team the freedom to be themselves is key to achieving that. When things go wrong, having too many processes and procedures in place can hinder staff when they need to make judgment calls based on their own experience, their humanity and the company culture.

On our team, we strive to give employees enough latitude to make decisions that are based on common sense, not outdated rulebooks. We believe in giving our staff the right tools to do their job, then trusting them to do the right thing.

Whether it’s dealing with an overbooked flight, a missed train or an issue with a phone bill, empower your front-line team to deal in the moment. Acting fast can cost you some money, but a delay or a rigid response will probably cost you a great deal more in lost good will. And in this age of social media, a customer issue can spread like wildfire across the internet, and cause lasting damage.

Giving your team flexibility and responsibility is part of the solution, but it’s also important to ensure that workers feel like they’re part of a bigger mission than just making money: They will treat customers better, and those customers will prove to be more loyal and come back over and over again. In the end, this will reflect positively on your profits, too.

I recently spent some time taking a whirlwind trip to visit Virgin businesses around the world, which gave me plenty of time on planes to reflect on these thoughts. It was particularly poignant to close a globetrotting week in Seattle, as that’s the home of Boeing, the company that gave me a break 33 years ago by renting a second-hand 747 airliner to a young upstart record producer so that we could launch Virgin Atlantic.

Most people wrote us off at the time and insisted we had no chance of surviving. However, building our airline around customer experiences and having an empowered team meant that we focused on the right things from the beginning.

It helped us create a service culture that attracted loyal passengers and allowed us to adapt.

We brought in more comfortable seats, stand-up bars, seat-back entertainment systems, but none of these features would have had an impact if we had not given our staff the freedom to be themselves.

More than 33 years later, Virgin Atlantic still exudes the same confidence and sense of fun that started it all. It’s a testimony to the leadership and company culture, which was embedded from the start.

If your business is not built on people and purpose, you will only ever be papering over the cracks. But if your business believes in supporting and growing your people, they will thrive; and customers will come back over and over again.

 

(Richard Branson is the founder of the Virgin Group and companies such as Virgin Atlantic, Virgin America, Virgin Mobile and Virgin Active. He maintains a blog at www.virgin.com/richard-branson/blog. You can follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/richardbranson. To learn more about the Virgin Group: www.virgin.com.) (Questions from readers will be answered in future columns. Please send them to Richard.Branson@nytimes.com. Please include your name, country, email address and the name of the website or publication where you read the column.)

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