For disgruntled airline passengers, Twitter is the new squeaky wheel.
Unhappy about WiFi failing on your flight? Tweet about it and you may get an apology and even some extra mileage points, and it will likely happen quicker than if you had just called or emailed.
Many companies are embracing social media as a customer service tool. But the airline industry, which badly needs an image overhaul, has become particularly aggressive in using social media to differentiate itself in a commoditized category and, consequently, improve its reputation with fliers.
Take JetBlue, which stopped charging for folded bikes carried on its planes after a customer complaint made its way around the Web.
“We love to see happy customers,” said JetBlue’s Morgan Johnston, who’s part of a team of 27 that monitors the airline’s Twitter account and Facebook page, which were established in 2007 and 2009, respectively. “We also understand that we’re not always going to win. But we have to be transparent about that.”
The carriers assert that the public nature of social media triggers prompt replies—not the size of someone’s following.
“Folks who are using the social channels tend to expect a quicker response,” said Christi McNeill, who manages social media efforts for Southwest, which has been on Twitter and Facebook since 2007.
Allison Ausband, vp of reservation sales and customer care at Delta, added that social media’s transparency is a good communications tool. “We know what our customers are thinking and feeling about us, the good and bad—every step of the travel ribbon.”
Delta was relatively late to Twitter and Facebook, having not created accounts for each until 2010. It now has 14 staffers who monitor social media.
Not withstanding the carriers’ claims, Twitter and Facebook represent digital sticks that a customer can wield. And even Johnston admits that he notices the size of someone’s following when he or she complains via social media.
“We see that, and we understand that, but we’re going to make sure we’re responsive to all our guests,” said Johnston, a corporate spokesman. “We’re not going to be bullied.”
Some observers, however, can’t help but conclude that a bigger following leads to a quicker response. Denny’s chief marketing officer Frances Allen goes even further, predicting that Klout scores could redefine a VIP in the eyes of the airline industry.
“You’re almost creating a different way of classifying your customers,” Allen said. “It’s no longer through usage but through the infinite power of word of mouth.”
Indeed, how many followers someone has on Twitter or Facebook underscores how far his or her unhappiness can spread. But for some companies, it also represents a way to quickly turn a negative into a positive.
As Ausband put it: “We can [turn] a mediocre or routine experience into an excellent one. In the end, it’s about satisfying the customer as opposed to being concerned about who’s listening in.”