When Virgin Mobile was launched in November 1999 as a joint venture between Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Group and Deutsche Telekom's One2One (now T-Mobile), it broke new ground by becoming the UK's first mobile virtual-network operator.
However, such is the company's consumer focus that it has made nothing of this in its marketing efforts. Its executives reason that the development - by which the company leases network space from other firms rather than having to run a network itself - means nothing to consumers and so is unlikely to make them switch mobile phone operators.
Instead, it has positioned itself as simply the UK's fifth mobile phone operator with products available over the phone or internet and through 7,000 high street stores, and invoked the Virgin tradition of doing things differently to win customers. The tactic it chose - a single simple tariff - caused a big shake-up in the industry and has since been copied by its competitors.
As a result, add managers, it has avoided becoming a niche player and is instead seen as a mainstream business that had attracted more than 1.7 million customers by the middle of this year. Moreover, in a market notorious for its churn rate, there is evidence of strong customer satisfaction at Virgin, with 58% of the first 100,000 customers remaining with the company at least until the middle of this year.
Although the company's headquarters, near the Wiltshire town of Trowbridge, are bright and cheerful and the staff seem relaxed and informal, there is little sign of the zaniness that many associate with the Virgin way.
In its place is an all-pervading and highly detailed concentration not just on pleasing customers but on exceeding their expectations. This thorough professionalism, allied with the innovation that has enabled it to break into a highly competitive market, has won Virgin Mobile this year's Retail and Consumer Services award in the face of tough competition from Woburn Safari Park, a category winner two years ago and Highly Commended this time.
Andrew Wilson, customer relationship director, says: 'Very simply, meeting customers' needs is what we're here to do. From the start, the customer experience was right at the heart of what we do.'
For example, it was decided to site the company headquarters and the call centre together so that the whole business - except for a small office in London and a warehouse in Daventry - was 'as close to the customer as possible'.
Similarly, while the company consciously targets a segment of the population it terms 'young at heart', it stops at nothing to find out as much as possible about them and their requirements. There are, for instance, quarterly customer satisfaction surveys that measure such things as why people chose Virgin Mobile, their willingness to recommend the network, their usage of new services and their attitudes towards them. There are also special surveys designed to assess, say, customers' experiences of buying over the internet, and regular online 'brain surgeries', in which Virgin advocates are asked to be critical of the company.
Behind all this is an acknowledgment that for customers to be happy the staff must be happy, too. Accordingly, great efforts have been made to make the call centre as human as possible by breaking it into sections manned by different teams that are in light-hearted competition with each other. Even induction courses are held in shifts so that would-be staff can easily attend. 'We encourage people to be human in dealing with customers,' says Wilson, adding that the philosophy is to 'empower people to do the job as they see fit'.