I had an experience on each leg of my recent trip to San Francisco that left me frustrated and looking for answers. Airlines need to know by now that when this happens, many of us are going to take to our smartphones and either try to reach them on Twitter, or tweet about the experience.
Airline One: Sporadic Responses to Tweets, If Any
First, my departing flight, with whom we will call Airline One, closed an hour and fifteen minutes before departure and I was not allowed to board. Like a good little customer, I first went to the customer service desk in the airport.
With over an hour before departure, the counter attendant blamed the early closing on "the computers" and told me she could get me to San Francisco that day, August 14th, for $1500 on top of the $600 I'd already paid. Or, she could transfer my existing ticket to a flight on August 23rd. I asked for a supervisor and, before the time my flight should even have closed, I ended up paying an extra $75 for a flight two hours later.
Once in the customs and security line, I was even more annoyed to see that passengers were being called ahead in line for other flights that departed in under an hour. While I was grateful to be flying that day, I wasn't happy with the experience. I reached out to the airline on Twitter. They seemed to have an active account, so I directed a tweet to them with a mention and explained why I was unhappy with their service. No response.
Once on the ground at my destination, I looked up their tweetfeed and saw that while they do answer some tweets, it's sporadic at best; at times, they go three or four days with no activity. Even then, they tend to respond only to those who directly mention them.
Airline Two: Responsive, Helpful and Timely Tweets
Why did I think this would be an effective way of communicating with them? On a flight home from Australia with a different airline, whom we'll call Airline Two, we were delayed on departure. Some passengers, myself included, were going to miss connecting flights. Using onboard Internet, I tweeted the airline and asked what we were supposed to do. Within 10 minutes, a company representative answered my tweet, asked for my booking number, then gave me new connecting flight and gate information.
The passengers sitting around me were amazed and asked if we could look theirs up, too. So over the course of about a half hour, we tweeted booking numbers and new flight numbers back and forth with the airline. We were then able to contact friends and family by email to let them know our new arrival times and could relax for the rest of the flight.
Looking back over their tweetfeed, they answered customer tweets day and night, usually within a few minutes.
Back to Airline One for Another Round of Unanswered Tweets
Same trip to San Francisco, on the return trip, our flight sat boarded on the tarmac for well over an hour with no explanation from the flight crew as to why we weren't departing. They refused to start food and beverage service and simply thanked us for our patience (which was running thin).
I checked again, in case I had missed a tweeted response to my earlier complaint, but there was none. Still, I could see that someone had been manning the account, answering other tweets, and posting sales messages in the week since my last tweet to the airline. I tried again, this time mentioning that I hadn't received a response earlier. Nothing.
This morning, I searched the name of the airline on Twitter. In the last 48 hours, they've been mentioned dozens of times, most in complaints or negative mentions. They haven't tweeted a single thing in three days. When they do tweet in response to a complaint, it is usually an instruction to email them and expect a response within 5 to 10 business days.
Customer Service & Reputation Management for Airlines on Twitter
Can an airline use Twitter successfully without incorporating the platform into their customer service department? I think not, and here's why:
Air travel is time sensitive. I don't want to email the company and get a canned response in a few weeks. Their presence on Twitter tells me they want to be involved in a time-sensitive messaging service. Their Twitter description says, "News & more." As a customer, I expect "more" than broadcasted sales messages.
Airlines recognize that many of us travel with smartphones; we can use an electronic code instead of a boarding pass. When travel plans are interrupted and you know your customers are sitting somewhere, angry or annoyed, with a direct line to everyone who follows them in social media or even searches for information on your company, you are remiss to think your brand won't be affected by their inevitable online messages.
Using an example from a friend's recent trip home, he reached out to his airline, whom we'll call Airline Three, and received a response. Unfortunately, the person tweeting on behalf of the airline gave him the wrong information. Their intent was good, but the Twitter representative needs access to the same information the rest of the customer service department uses. It's not a part-time job or extra duty for other staff if it's going to be done properly.
Twitter is not a good broadcasting platform for companies with tech-savvy customers and time sensitive needs. Airlines One and Three, in this post, are actually doing themselves a disservice by skimping out on their Twitter presence. When you compare the cost to their brand reputation with the expense of properly staffing the account, it seems to be a no-brainer.