Airlines use Social Tools to help fix customer service

Airlines are setting themselves apart through their use of social media tools.

It’s no secret that flying is more stressful than ever. Between running the security gauntlet, paying for services that really should be free and dealing with crabby airport staff – or no airport staff at all – many travellers would rather have a root canal than step on a plane.

Airlines are grappling with the risks of smartphone-carrying passengers all too willing to ‘Tweet‘ their dissatisfaction at the drop of a hat. Stung by viral debacles like JetBlue’s emergency chute-jumping flight attendant and film director Kevin Smith’s ejection from a Southwest Airlines flight because of his weight, airlines have become leaders in adopting social media strategies.

They’re using tools like Twitter to simplify customer contact and response by proactively monitoring and responding to online chatter. For flyers who have lost luggage or missed a flight, the immediacy of social media-based feedback could render toll-free numbers and website feedback forms – the customer service equivalent of a brick wall – obsolete.

In an industry where every airline essentially sells the same commoditized service, airlines that use social media to turn disappointed customers into happy ones, or to simply enhance the travel experience, are already setting themselves apart and building loyalty.

United Airlines learned this lesson the hard way after baggage handlers in Chicago damaged Halifax songwriter David Carroll’s $3,500 custom-made bass guitar. Carroll spent nine months sending e-mails, writing letters and calling airline representatives – a process that went nowhere – before, fed up and out of options in July 2009, he wrote a song entitled United Song #1 and uploaded it to YouTube.

When the catchy riff went viral, with 150,000 views the day it went live and over 9.2 million since, United finally relented and, at Carroll’s request, donated the $1,200 he paid for repairs to charity. But not before its share values dropped 10 per cent, or $180 million.

Scenarios like this can keep industry leaders awake at night.

Ultimately, integrating social media into the customer service culture pays ongoing dividends. Sweating the small stuff is the new industry mantra.

Who’s doing what?

Virgin America includes a check in/travel manager on its Facebook page and also allows flyers to confirm flight status.

JetBlue set up a discussion area on Flickr, a photo sharing service, that allows customers to interact directly with each other.

Southwest Airlines uses Twitter to keep passengers updated on weather delays. Staff also routinely respond to customer tweets with tweets of their own.

British Airways, KLM, Lufthansa and other airlines used the hashtag #ashcloud to update scrambling passengers last April during the volcanic eruption in Iceland that shut down air travel over much of Europe. This Twitter feature allowed passengers to get the answers they needed and relieved pressure on overburdened call centres.