Backstage Business Development

A great way to improve your own business development, is to understand and model the mindset and strategic concepts behind those individuals and businesses who have experienced real success. In the first interview in the ‘Backstage Business Development’ series Ian Cooper, Editor of the ‘Financial Times Guide To Business Development’ Blog talks to Wendy Atkin-Smith, UK Managing Director of Viking River Cruises. 


Just a few days ago I met and chatted with Wendy Atkin-Smith, UK Managing Director of Viking River Cruises. When she very casually mentioned, in response to one of my questions, that Viking were currently building 8 huge new ‘state of the art’ river cruise ships, all of which they planned to launch in 2013, I nearly spilt my diet coke and fell out of my interviewers chair.

Let me be blunt here … in business terms, to build and launch 1 new cruise ship in this current global economic climate is a pretty bold step, but to finance, design, build and launch 8 is nothing short of a business miracle of epic proportions. Oh yes … and to make the story even more improbable, they also built and launched 6 earlier this year. Are the Vikings building a fleet to invade a small country? 

By the end of 2013 they will have 30 ships carrying huge numbers of predominantly British and US guests up and down the rivers of Europe, China, Vietnam and Cambodia in real style. This makes Viking the largest and fastest growing cruise line in the world and after a conversation with Wendy Atkin-Smith about what makes Viking tick, it’s not difficult to see why. 

How can any major company be so self confident about its future business development success? What makes Viking so certain about its customer demand? How do Viking differentiate themselves from their competition? What is it that enables Viking to attract customers by the ‘shipload’, keep them happy, get them coming back for more and recommend them so enthusiastically to others? 

According to Wendy, there is a three word phrase which answers all those questions … “outstanding customer service”. A year ago, I would have regarded this phrase as nothing more than clichéd marketing. However, having been a humble passenger on their Imperial Jewels of China trip with my wife last year, long before I met Wendy, I know it is far from hype. After almost 30 years of writing, reviewing and speaking about business development and the ‘customer experience’, that holiday was by far the best customer service focused trip I have ever had. 

About Wendy Atkin-Smith 

Pragmatic, down to earth and totally passionate about the Viking customer experience, Wendy takes everything that happens to a Viking customer very personally. She is the classic example of someone who has worked her way up through a company and who knows every aspect of the industry. Having had a background in retail travel, she moved into the river cruise world to try something new. Her journey to UK Managing Director began many years ago when she started in reservations and worked her way through operations, sales and marketing. Wendy has been Managing Director of Viking UK now for about 5 years. 

She is a very hands on Managing Director. No hiding away in a remote corporate office for Wendy. She has an open door policy and plays an active part in the activities of every department. She is close to both the corporate business development issues and above all the customers. I have heard totally independently from customers, how Wendy has personally intervened on the odd occasion that ‘an issue’ has arisen, to show how much both Viking and she really care. 

So, what is the strategy and business development mindset that enable Viking to achieve so much? Here in her own words is what she said in answer to some of my questions: 

What is the biggest business development challenge for Viking River Cruises? 

WAS – “Continuing to grow in the current market is one of our biggest business development challenges. We are not just content to survive in this economic climate. We are all about moving forward and growing. Setting high customer service standards, along with customer retention is our ongoing challenge”. 

Can you give me some practical examples, of what you mean by high standards and customer service? 

WAS – “Our customer service is second to none. I can give you many examples: 

  • We track feedback on everything, even the small details. For example, a huge amount of time was spent sometime ago just reviewing and discussing the quality and appearance of our crockery and cutlery. 
  • We don’t over promise … we want people to get more than they expected. 
  • On the odd occasion someone has a problem … and it is occasionally … we are almost always able to turn a negative into a positive by the way we handle it and the level of genuine care we show. 
  • We focus on every aspect of the way a customer might deal with us. As far as we are concerned, the Viking customer services experience kicks in from the moment someone picks up the phone to talk to a member of our reservations team, until the moment they get off the ship at the end of their trip. 
  • We spend a huge amount of effort making our trips destination centered. Virtually all our ship excursions are included in our price and the relationships that we have built up at many destinations, mean that we can often take guests to places no other company can”. 

How do you ensure and maintain these high standards? 

WAS – “Control is a big issue for us. We like to keep control over every aspect of what we do and we rarely give anything out to third parties. All elements are controlled and staffed by Viking River Cruise customer service trained people, even if they are based locally. 

We recruit and pick people for the UK office with an aptitude for customer service and a positive mental approach. They all know they are representing Viking. We pay people well, look after them and have great in house and external training on customer related issues. For example, we have a trainer who sits in on our reservations call centre all the time, looking for improvements, in both the way they deal with callers and product knowledge. 

To get a job in the Viking call centre at Viking, people have to go through a minimum of three interviews with three different people, some of which include role-play. As managing director I try to personally sit in on all interviews for people in different departments. 

One of the reasons for our success, is that we are able to retain staff. We have created a fun place to work in a relaxed environment where everyone has a high level of belief in the product.” 

What’s new for Viking? How are you growing the business by developing new products? 

WAS – “Well apart from the 8 new Longships we are building for next year, in 2013 we are launching in Portugal on the River Douro. We know Portugal is popular with our UK customers and the advance bookings reflect this. It means our customers can travel in Viking style in Europe and be reasonably sure of Portugese sunshine. The River Douro ship, which is not one we have built, will be ‘Vikingised’ to our standards. It even has a swimming pool and Jacuzzi on the sundeck … unusual for a river cruise ship. 

How can you be so sure you can fill all these ships? 

WAS – “We have total confidence in the demand for our holidays from both our UK and US offices. We are hugely popular in the US, which accounts for a high percentage of our customer base. We monitor everything and we know what the customer retention rate is and the extent to which we get great word of mouth marketing from loyal customers. We can project from our existing bookings and enquiries how many ships we need, so we keep building them to keep pace with what customers want. 

We know and understand our target market and our customer’s profile. We are very good at designing our products, business development strategy and pricing structure around our customer base.” 

Ian Cooper 

Conclusion – After years of working in this area, it is quite possible that I am the biggest cynic on the planet when it comes to marketing hype and claims about great service. I find it ironic that in recent times, that I hear more and more businesses talk about customer service, but in practice actually deliver less of it! 

This however is not the case with Viking River Cruises. They really do deliver on their promises. Their dynamic, creative and passionate customer focus and ethos is a goal to which all businesses should aspire. They are living proof that when it comes to business development, quality pays and equals profitable customers. 

For more information about about Viking Cruises visit their website – click here!



Ian Cooper is also Author of the Financial Times Guide To Business Development. 

Copyright©2012 Ian Cooper