Branson: Nevermind networking; technology will get you closer to customers


Richard Branson

November 10, 2014

Virgin boss Sir Richard Branson on the importance of social media, and why businesses that fail to embrace new technology are dead in the water

We all know the importance of networking. We’ve been told it a thousand times over. However, there can be nothing worse than a staged networking event. A one hour slot in the middle of a dry conference, where you’re tasked with shuffling around the room and reading a sea of scribbled nametags.

It’s fair to say that the ritual serves a purpose, but there are far more imaginative and stimulating ways of getting to know people.

No matter how fulfilled you are in your work life, it can quickly become repetitive when you’re constantly regurgitating your name, home town and profession. There are much more interesting things to be talking about, not least because you’re probably in the company of many like-minded individuals who would much rather be discussing topics which excite those in the conversation.

I saw this in action for myself at our 30:30 event on the London Eye in the summer. Virgin Media Business were able to convene a great group of industry experts and fledgling entrepreneurs to get to know each other at 450ft.

The idea was to get representatives from six key industries, covering everything from fashion to healthcare, to look ahead at what the next 30 years’ would hold for their particular sector. You can really find out a lot about others, as well as yourself, when you’re put in into an unfamiliar position with a task to perform.

After a few revolutions of the Eye (have to admit, I decided to sit this part out), the groups shared their findings and told us what innovations we could expect to become a reality.

What I found interesting was the reoccurring themes that were present across all of the different industries. The one thing that everyone was grappling with was to try and understand the impact new waves of technology would have on the way they operate.

There were some wonderful examples of how social entrepreneurs can use new technologies to improve the lives of people, with the Virgin StartUp funded company Gennex showing how to provide renewable energy solutions for the developing world. This particular example underlines the real potential of technology, as a way of empowering people to create jobs and boost economies.

At the other end of the scale we had the brothers behind High Spirit bags, Arnold and Josh Okungbaiye, told us how they envisaged the retail sector being transformed by clever new innovations.

Imagine being in a changing room where the mirrors have been replaced by virtual windows, enabling you to seek that much coveted second opinion from friends – it’s a wonderfully fun idea!

If they don’t run with it then I think we might have to introduce it, I’m sure we could find room for it in one of our health clubs or airport lounges.

Something that quickly became apparent as we were discussing the ways our businesses needed to be prepared for the future was the need for the right digital tools to be in place.

New technology can bring you closer to your customers, give a greater level of transparency to your business and give you the ability to offer new products or services which haven’t previously been on the market.

I recall a Virgin America customer once telling me that a member of the cabin crew had accidently missed him out when serving drinks, so he decided to tweet the airline. It was picked up by the social media team, who notified ground control, who then radioed the captain who was able to tell the cabin crew to go back and serve the drink. A funny story, but it goes to prove that you can’t get away with anything, you need to be on the ball as there is now such a level on transparency that you can’t to afford not to be.

Not only that, technology gives you ways to collaborate with customers like never before. Lego is a great example of this, with their ‘design community’ which allows fans of the product – and therefore the most valuable customers – to submit ideas for new Lego sets. The most popular of which go into production, after they have gathered enough support from the online community and passed product tests

These are all huge positives, but the opportunities presented by new waves of technology can soon turn to negatives if you don’t take the right steps to ensure your company is up to speed. You need the skills to make use of the technology at our fingertips and requires a whole new education in business; entirely different to the one I needed 40 years ago.

We’ve realised this at Virgin and want to share our own resource with everyone who’s keen to learn. So we have launched a free online digital learning tool through Virgin Media Business’ The Big Digital Skills Hub. This website offers video tutorials from digital experts to educate anyone who wants to understand the skills needed to grow a successful business in the modern world.

When the digital revolution took place I remember that a lot of companies simply digitalized their current methods of working, rather than taking steps to really adapt. The same can be seen today, with the influence social media can exert over a company. Lots of organisations will pay lip service to the idea by hiring a social media executive, opening up a Twitter account and leaving them in the corner of the office to get on with things.

In reality you need to fully embrace it or just not bother in the first place. Make them part of your communications team, give them a direct line to all other teams in the business and let your social media profile be a living and breathing representation of what your brand actually stands for.

Your company social media accounts are directly engaging with customers every hour, possibly even every minute, of the day. There aren’t many other areas in a business which can have such an instant impact on your reputation; you need to ensure you have the right tools and practices in place to deal with customer complaints or emergencies.

As well as starting conversations with customers about positive subjects, you need to be prepared to field the odd angry piece of feedback, which every business will get once in a while.

The introduction of new technology only ever seems to bring companies closer to their customers, that is a great thing and something which we shouldn’t try to fight against.

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