Virgin Blue’s mistake reveals countless selfish whingers

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Thank you, Virgin Blue, for sending your “erroneous” email Friday night. You’ve done us a great public service. You’ve exposed a pack of greedy, selfish, shallow tools who deserve to be ridiculed publicly. Thank you.

On Friday evening, Australian airline Virgin Blue sent an email telling some Velocity Rewards members they’d been upgraded to Gold status. But as documented at mUmBRELLA, the email went not just to those entitled to the upgrade but their entire database — including people who’d opted out of email marketing.

Including me because, yes, I’m a Velocity Rewards member.

“That can’t be right,” I thought. “I haven’t flown with Virgin Blue this year.” Then I saw others saying similar things online and I figured the mistake was more widespread. I chuckled, knowing that someone had a bit of a mess to clear up.

Sure enough, three hours later a second email arrived.

Oops! Due to an error you’ve received our previous email by mistake. Please disregard the free upgrade communication as unfortunately you do not qualify for that upgrade.

We apologise for any inconvenience caused.

Mistake. Correction. Apology. That’s the end of the story, yes? Alas no.

Suddenly a whole bunch of people are demanding their Gold status should stay even though, like, they’re not actually entitled to it. People are “upset”. They’re demanding compensation, some even saying they should be compensated with a free flight voucher.

Compensated? Compensated for fucking what, exactly?

Compensated for being too stupid to realise the email was obviously a mistake? Compensated for having a vastly over-inflated sense of entitlement? Compensated for being so much of a consumer-puppet that you validate yourself by bragging about some confected faux-status symbolised by which colour plastic card sits in your wallet and then being embarrassed because, oh sorry, you’re actually still just another cheap-arsed prole after all?

I don’t think that’s Virgin Blue’s fault.


Now of course there’s a metric bazillion blog posts and comments banging on about how this is “epic fail” on Virgin Blue’s part and how they’d have handled it so much better and faster. I won’t link to them because it’s too depressing to realise how many instant fucking experts appear after every little glitch is made public.

However I will link to Darryl King’s excellent piece about what he calls Crowd Spanking.

Why is it that the tools of Social Media make tools out of people?

Yes, companies, people and organisations of any sort can and should be open to criticism and correction of poor behaviour. I agree totally. However I don’t agree that Crowd Spanking of everyone that does something wrong is effective nor necessary …

Add some perspective. This is not a corporation that has exposed their staff and customer to asbestos and are denying compensation. It is an upgrade people! …

Before all the Social Media Gurus come up with the 10 things that Virgin Blue could have done better blog posts think through how businesses and people at work live.


“Epic fail” on Virgin Blue’s part? Bah! Step back a little and think about the full gamut of things which an airline can get wrong and the potential consequences. Up one end, you’ve got mistakes where hundreds of people die in a ball of flame, traumatising their loved ones. Down the other end you’ve got… gosh! A marketing email that was sent to people by mistake.

To the folks who reckon they’d have handled it better and quicker, well, are you really set up to handle such an unusual situation on a Friday night when people have gone to the pub or gone home for the weekend? Personally, I reckon identifying the problem and getting the second email out in three hours isn’t a bad effort — especially when in the meantime there’s, you know, a fucking airline to run!

Well done, Virgin Blue. Well done.

I reckon — and this is just my opinion here — but I reckon we save the Really Big Stick for mistakes which actually matter. Also, stop being such selfish, judgemental little pricks.

[Update 16 October 2009: To illustrate some points I’ll be making in the comments, here’s a screenshot of the erroneous Velocity Rewards email.]

55 Replies to “Virgin Blue’s mistake reveals countless selfish whingers”

  1. Both myself and a mate got the emails, we both laughed because neither of us were entitled to anything as we hadn’t flown on Virgin enough to be awarded a free cup of coffee let alone a pass to their lounge. Then when the retraction came we laughed even louder and thought it might be funny to email the Virgin Marketing a link to Amazon for SQL for Dummies or something similar.

    As for all the people who feel entitled to something for whinging, please fill in the green card application and move to the appropriate culture where such actions are rewarded. If not then take some advice from Uncle Chop Chop and HTFU.

  2. When did Stil start working for Velocity Rewards? I am afraid he doth protest too much…and he fails to mention the resulting collapse of the Velocity Rewards website so nobody could even confirm the e-mail. My e-mail said my points were close to making Gold Class and that was why the upgrade. I tried to check and the website just crashed out. My reneg didn’t turn up until this morning so I went home thinking “what a great bunch” only to have it confirmed that no, they are a bunch of shitbox operators who couldn’t organise an orgy in a brothel with a fistful of fifties. Try and send a complaint about it on their website. I wasted 45 minutes on them. Never again. The Frequent Flyer people look a bit more together than this rabble.

    Snake Gallagher has no pecuniary interest in Frequent Flyer operations.

  3. @Snake Gallagher: Since when did I start working for Velocity Rewards? Um, never. I am merely a Virgin Blue customer — and a very tiny and infrequent one at that.

    I find it hilarious that a commenter over at mUmBRELLA (number 34) thinks “most of the comments are from carefully orchestrated ‘bloggers’ paid by Virgin Blue to spin this topic to make it sound like effected [sic] people are mean and stingy.” Again, I find it curious that people can’t imagine someone cutting them a bit of slack unless they’re paid to do so.

    If I ever have a connection with whatever I’m writing about, you’ll see it disclosed at the bottom of the post, loud and clear — unless it’s already disclosed generally on the “about” page.

    I didn’t mention the “crash” of the website because I didn’t think it particularly noteworthy. Many websites fall over when hit with a sudden massive increase in load. Besides, my piece is more about personal greed and selfishness.

    I’m intrigued that your emotional response went from “what a great bunch” to “a bunch of shitbox operators who couldn’t organise an orgy in a brothel with a fistful of fifties”. Nothing in between?

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  5. Stil, thanks for keeping it real as always, as I certainly have much bigger worries, but I thought it worth pointing out a couple of points that still remain for me.

    First, it’s now clear there’s a process that allows some customers to be upgraded to a higher level even though they haven’t earned sufficient points. That’s the main thing VirginBlue should be addressing in its next email to customers.

    Next, VirginBlue (and anybody else operating a loyalty program) would do well to remember the true value of reward points is not their cost to the company but the way they make the customer feel. Some customers won’t give a damn that a level’s been awarded and then been withdrawn, but other customers will feel it deeply because that’s what a loyalty scheme is designed to make them feel.

    The email should have been personal — from person to person, not from brand to person. It should have been written in the name of a VirginBlue senior executive with a signature and a photograph at the end of the email.

    Next, the email should have detailed the approx. number of customers affected by the error, the cause of the error in layperson’s terms (not just “a system error”) and the steps taken to ensure it doesn’t happen again. Being too brief about it just gives the impression the company doesn’t take it seriously and doesn’t care if it happens again.

    Finally, VirginBlue deliberately positions itself as the underdog in the Australian domestic aviation market and fosters an “us-against-the-establishment” relationship with its regular customers. That relationship only works if VirginBlue shows it values its customer relationships more than its competitors do.

    By making such a dramatic error and then doing such a bad job of communicating it, VirginBlue starts to look much more like the establishment than the underdog.

  6. “the email should have detailed the approx. number of customers affected by the error”.

    Hardly. As they have stated, they’re not about to provided clues as to the number of frequent flyers they have in their programme. And as it seems to have gone to all members (those who’ve signed up and not flown, to those who already are gold status), providing such information would, inter alia, be a statement of the number of members.

  7. @alan jones and @Craig Welch: I’m trying to avoid “I reckon this is how they could have done it better” hindsight-equipped cleverness. I reckon it would’ve been a hair-raising couple of hours for the Virgin Blue staff responsible.

    That said, speaking more generally, my own preference is to give specific detail about a problem — something lawyers hate, of course, but I think it builds trust. I don’t see much harm in saying the email went to “tens of thousands” or “hundreds of thousands”, or that “someone ticked the wrong box before sending the email.” However I find that it takes longer to write a friendly, informative email.

    @Paddy: No-one should have to pay for Pringles. Or have to eat them. Or have to sit next to anyone eating them.

  8. So they sent out a spam email. Big deal. I get hundreds of those a week, most promising me more that Gold membership in a crappy cut-price airline.

    What upset me were the weasel words used in the apology. “Unfortunately.” So it’s my bad luck? “Warm Regards.” From a spamming engine?

    Can we please stop pretending that these emails are one-to-one, especially when it’s so obvious that mass marketing is what’s going on?

    Why am I complaining here? Because I could not for the life of me find a valid email address to express my concerns to. I guess I could call them up and spend 20 minutes on hold to India only to be put through to someone who can’t help me, but what’s the point? We’re happy to spam you, but don’t you dare contact us …

  9. I was just grateful that none of my work stuffups have been on such a grand public scale. Yet. I’m wondering if I can sue Virgin for making me anxious about having my past disasters come to light.

    As for what they could have done better – I’d suggest they could stop hiring humans. And using computers.

  10. @Jim: I’m with you about the email point. If someone sends me an email, I believe I should to be able to reply by email. Same for whatever other medium. I hate, for example, one business’ habit of sending an SMS when payment is late — but from a number which doesn’t accept SMS.

    Now you’ve got me thinking about all the communication on my own business’ workflows and seeing if they comply with my own standards!

  11. I recieved the emails. Of course I thought as soon as I read the first email it was probably an error. Though by the time I got the 2nd email (the next day), I had convinced myself that this was some sort of marketing campaign etc due to the recent launch of V Australia. I had decided that I should try to fly Virgin and V Australia whenever possible. Of course now I am rather annoyed, particularly with the flippant email chalking it up to Friday the 13th – hardly an apology in my book. So have made it my mission to discourage all friends and family from using companies under the Virgin label. To those of you that think I am being precious and don’t deserve to whinge about something I was never entitled to – I feel you are missing the point. It is one thing to never offer someone a gold membership, but to tell people they have been given an upgrade and then to take it away from them is always going to put people offside. Do I expect to be given a free upgrade? Hell no. But I expect that a company that does make such a stuff up would make a better effort with the apology than has happened here. At the end of the day all Virgin has managed to do is highlighted to thousands of people that they will never qualify for Gold status, and that certainly can’t be good for business and goodwill.

  12. Yep you nailed this. My thoughts also. Nice work. My son Caleb who is 5 was very impressed to be upgraded. Not sure that Virgin can reverse his upgrade.

  13. I like how some of the comments say that people made decisions based on the faulty email. What freakin decisions??? It is a card that gives you nothing more than access to the lounge. It doesn’t actually give you extra POINTS and is based on your Status Points and NOT the number of tradeable points in your account (ones that can be used at the Velocity Rewards Shop or for flights) Unless you were at the airport or on the way and got the email just before you left and then tried to get in to the Lounge (automatic entry for Gold Card Holders) then what did it matter. A Gold card holder gives NO more priveledges that a Silver card holder except for the Lounge access. Priority Check in is available to both

  14. @Jim: I tried to send an e-mail through the Velocity Rewards e-mail complaint system…five times before I gave up the first time. Either their security identification system is broken or it is designed to confuse a potential complainer and put them off complaining. It worked the first time. Then I read all of this about whingers and I thought, “Bugger it, I will complain” being a professional whinger in my early days. It took 45 minutes and another seven goes to get the website to accept my whinge. So just to make my whinging selfish point I copied the text of my e-mail into another e-mail and sent it with an all encompassing unbelievably selfish whinge of biblical proportions to NAB Credit Cards Marketing and Virgin Blue Marketing headed “Absolutely and Totally Useless”.

    I know. I am just a selfish whinger. What can I say?

  15. stil: You say in one of your blogs that “people may have booked tickets using the false email and that you hope that Virgin honour them” or words similar. Gold Status does NOT give you a discount on tickets and anyone who books a ticket “out of the blue” because they now have lounge access has too much time on their hands. You dont get any additional benefit (except lounge) than a Silver card holder. And Snake Gallagher you spent so much time trying to complain but about what. Would you spend that time if you called a cab and they said it would be to you in 30 minutes and it actually took 31 or conversaly would you spend that much effort if it turned up early. Everyone is happy to spend (as you did) 45 minutes whinging when an error is made but how often are they thankfull when soemthing goes better than planned.

  16. @Peter: Hmmm… Well, as I mentioned over at mUmBRELLA, the response does seem disproportionate to me. Yes, this will have certainly hurt Virgin Blue’s reputation. But people will make their own decisions about how to respond and whether to use Virgin Blue again. I don’t quite see why we have to keep hitting them with the stick by rallying some sort of boycott. YMMV.

    @Jess: If someone bought tickets just because they got upgraded, well, I suspect you can figure out how I feel about them. But if someone was already planning to travel and was making a final decision about which airline, then maybe the offer of Gold lounge status was the clincher.

    This email didn’t just go to Silver members, but pretty much everyone it would seem — including lowly Red cardholders like me.

    @Fictillius: Well, even if only 5% of that million+ people demanded a free sandwich and coffee, that’s $500,000. That’s one hell of a mistake, even without people demanding more. And, as Fairfax article points out, the lounges couldn’t even physically accommodate all the new players.

    @Snake Gallagher: You may be a selfish whinger, but at least you’re persistent and dedicated, and you’ve got to admire dedication.

    1. Exactly… which is why even if Velocity wanted to compensate people for the stuff up it would be completely infeasible to do so. The gold status gives higher baggage allowance, free access/food/alcohol in the lounges and more points per dollar spent, the cost would go into the millions and let’s face it the margins in the airline business are pretty slim.

      I certainly don’t want to be sharing the lounge with a million others… I might as well go and wait at the gate.

  17. Having travelled with Virgin a few times I think that IF a person was to book his/her ticket based on the first email and was to print out that email (regardless of whether it is authentic/a mistake or whatever) and then take a copy of that email with them to the lounge 99.9% of the domestics lounge staff would allow access but confirm the second email exists (even though the person travelling probably knew this and jumped up and down anyway. Given we arent talking huge numbers in your IF/IF scenario becasue they would be able to check to see when the booking was made and you could use your argument “I only booked Virging because of the status change” quite succesfully. Once again you would have people that would try this on days after the second email came out and they would be going off their preverbial nuts saying Virgin were a pack of morons even though they are aware of the error.

  18. At the end of the day all Virgin has managed to do is highlighted to thousands of people that they will never qualify for Gold status, and that certainly can’t be good for business and goodwill.

    Yes, such soul crushing disappointment.

    As for the rest of it, I think “bleh” sums it up quite nicely.

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