angry-birds-planeRaise your hand if you've ever been screwed over by an airline. Yeah, me too -- multiple times.

Most recently, United Airlines canceled my flight out of Cleveland an hour before my coworker and I were to depart. When we asked what to do about having nowhere to stay for 10 hours, the airline said it couldn't help. When we requested a hotel, we got the same response.

In the midst of this mess, I took to Twitter and began venting my frustrations to @United. During the conversation, this magical little tweet came in from @AmericanAir:

My initial reaction? "Wow -- what a great social media team. They instantly jumped in to help!"

After the airline's tweet, a series of folks responded, complimenting American for listening to a customer (and one who wasn't even theirs), responding quickly, and wanting to help.

Yes, my friends, this is an example of customer delight. But it also lends itself to a tale of a great social media team that, despite its heroic efforts, cannot save a poor business.

A History of Poor Customer Service

Earlier this year, I was flying American on a trip to California. I needed to change my reservation so that I could fly from Los Angeles to San Francisco before returning to Boston. I was providing American with more business with the caveat of changing my return flight to Boston in a few days. A simple request, right?

Not entirely. American asked me to pay $200 just to change my flight. This was more than the ticket price I was paying to get from L.A. to San Fran. "I'm sorry, you want me to pay more than the extra flight ticket I'm buying from you just to give you more business?"

I talked to four customer service agents, including two supervisors -- all who tried their best to help me -- but ultimately it seemed their hands were tied. No one was willing or able to override the $200 charge for the sake of retaining me as a customer (and actually getting more money out of me!).

So, I took to Twitter then, too. Within minutes, American responded. The company requested my ticketing information and went to work trying to help me. With every angry tweet I sent, they replied kindly and with an intention of helping. Unfortunately, though, despite the airline's desire to assist me, it couldn't get far without needing to have its own customer service team to step in. Nothing came of this move, either.

When American tweeted at me when I was stranded in Cleveland, I was hopeful. I requested a seat to Boston, and the airline responded with a chance to help:

In excitement, I called the number. I waited for 15 minutes. I spoke with a rep for another 15 minutes. And then that rep, just like before, was unable to assist. Angry that American led me on, I began tweeting -- again.

And again, the company tweeted back, requesting I keep checking back in case something opened up. I eventually tweeted out admiration for its social media efforts, but disapproval for its unhelpful business model.

Meanwhile, by the way, United had only tweeted at me once -- asking for flight info. And after I sent it over? Pure crickets. No response. No apology. No desire to help.

Kudos to the airline's social media team for doing its best to respond and interact with customers. At the end of the day, though, no matter how important social media becomes for a business strategy, no matter how many brands begin to utilize it efficiently, if you're not backed up by a solid business strategy, your social can only take you so far.

Use Social Media to Help, Not Hype

I was actually in Cleveland for Content Marketing World. On the first day of the conference, Jay Baer spoke about marketing that is there to help, not hype.

As the social media manager or a member of the social media team at your business, you can't change a business's model or its core beliefs. You can't make a company care about its customers. But what you can do is make the most of your social media efforts by helping as best you can. Here's a few top ways you can assist customers.

1) Maintain Transparent Communication

When customers are upset, it's likely your team attempted to help. But unless you can 100% confidently provide a service, don't provide that service. American explicitly told me it had seats available when it didn't. The airline should've made that point transparent so I wasn't wasting time on the phone with a customer rep when I could be searching for other solutions.

It's worth having a discussion with your social media team about potential solutions for when you can't assist customers. In American's case, the social media team could speak with decision-makers about having some free or discounted tickets available -- or perhaps vouchers for a future flight -- for when they run into frustrated customers.

2) Build a Relationship With Customer Support

Work to build a direct line of communication with the customer support team. In our ebook on How Twitter Can Solve Challenges for Marketing, Support, and Sales, one of our customer service reps, Nick Salvatoriello, says: "Ideally, as customer service reps, we’d like to know about customer concerns before they get upset. By monitoring customer interactions on Twitter, you can spot people trying to figure out how to use your product or service."

And that's the way it should be. Perhaps your social media team can star or flag tweets from customers in your marketing database. That way, when that customer calls into the support line, the support rep knows this individual has already been communicating with the brand on Twitter. In my example, when I called American and said that the company tweeted this number to me to help, the airline knew nothing about the exchange.

(Tip for HubSpot users: Using HubSpot's Social Inbox, your social media team can easily email forward tweets that need customer support attention to customer support reps. Learn more in this blog post.)

3) Create a Hashtag for Specific Problems

Start a program in which customers can use a hashtag on Twitter to relay their issues to the company. By having one consistent hashtag, customers know that a brand’s entire community of customers has a place to communicate. The result is a hashtag that the customer service team can monitor on Twitter in order to respond to important tweets.

At HubSpot, we use #hubspotting for this purpose. We make that hashtag loud and clear to our customers in our phone consulting, in our messaging on webinars, and so on. That helps Nick stay in touch with his customers.

Imagine if United had a specific hashtag I could have used. Even if the company didn't respond right away, perhaps another customer was facing the same issue as me and could've helped. But I had no way to tap into United's community or properly get its attention.

Not All Airlines Getting It Wrong

After reading my story, you may be wondering, "Well, maybe it's just the airline industry as a whole that's terrible."

Not true.

My domestic airline of choice is typically JetBlue. Last year, I had an early flight to Chicago and accidentally slept through my flight departure. Crap, I thought. If airlines are typically unwilling to help, there's no hope when this is 100% my fault.

To my pleasant surprise, JetBlue customer service reps were charming and cheerful and told me I could either pay $50 for a new flight (which is reasonable -- especially compared to $200), or I could go to the airport and wait on standby to get on a flight for free. Arriving early, I easily got a seat for free on the next flight. This customer-focused business model delighted me. The airline truly cared about me reaching my destination, and made it easy for me to do so.

This business model transcends into the airline's social media efforts. Earlier in September, one Twitter user complained about his flight being canceled. Unlike my flight cancellation from United that resulted in no response, JetBlue let the passenger know he was entitled to a refund. That little dose of delight sure would have eased my stress in Cleveland!

So, to sum up the lesson for today: A great business model + a great social media team = customer happiness. If the model is something you can't control, though, then just work your butt off to resolve issues for -- and ultimately satisfy -- customers who have legitimate issues that they share on social media.

Image Credit: Gamerboy

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Originally published Oct 1, 2013 2:00:00 PM, updated February 01 2017


Social Media Strategy