I have never taken a virtual train journey. Never until this morning that is. A friend was heading north from King's Cross, London on the newly transferred back to the private sector East Coast Mainline rail service.
Now this friend has an eye for detail. And a strong sense of what's right when it comes to customer service and customer experience especially when related to travel.
Or in the case of this journey - what's wrong.
His live commentary via WhatsApp is as entertaining as it is a train wreck (sorry) of missed opportunities.
Virgin (along with Stagecoach) assumed responsibility for the franchise over the weekend. And as is usual with Virgin a rebranded train was showcased with accompanying hyperbole. That's the Virgin way - lots of hat, not much cattle.
It's great for a quick gulp of PR oxygen but it has the tendency to raise customer expectations. Don't get me wrong my friend was not expecting Virgin Atlantic 'Upper Class' but he assumed if it was good enough to brand the differences would be tangible onboard.
They weren't. He was in 'First Class'and at least got fed a mediocre breakfast, much delayed (and heaven help you if you're on the train over breakfast AND lunch - you are allowed only one meal so choose wisely) the poor blighters in 'Standard Class' had no 'at seat trolley service' because of a lack of staff.
Smart uniforms from the state owned service have been replaced with shoddy sweaters.
Now I'm not underestimating for a second how difficult it is to effect both an operational and a branding change at the same time. And they have tried to caveat that with their "Start of an amazing journey...." tagline.
I would just have advanced the argument that a partial rebrand is worse than no rebrand. Branding is not just about sticking a new logo on the menu and the side of the train. It runs deep into the entire product experience.
Virgin should have focused on the operational changeover. Communicated the changes that were coming and offering a free beverage onboard for the foreseeable future to 'seal the deal' with a tangible gesture. Then worked behind the scenes on the product and brand - launching the new service only when ready.
Brand and experience inconsistency is deeply damaging - my friend's journey could so easily have been a very different and more future thinking experience instead the Virgin brand just lost a fan.