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Airlines: Is a Customer Service Mindset at Odds With a Social Media Culture?

One of the quietly most controversial topics of discussion at this year’s SITA IT Summit in Brussels was the difference of opinion between Eash Sundaram, Executive Vice President and CIO of JetBlue Airways and Susana Brown, Managing Director-Operations Technologies at American Airlines on each airline’s Social Media strategy.

This was in the context of a presentation by Shashank Nigam of Simpliflying about the shifting habits of flyers to share their dissatisfaction with airlines on Social Media in various ways. Nigam urged attendees at the Summit to note the trend towards an always-on conversation from the flying public, sharing Selfies from the airplane during aircraft emergencies (which will sound familiar to Flight Chic readers)–even complaining about the inflight product on Social Media via the inflight Wi-Fi without voicing the complaint to the inflight crew. (A broken tray table onboard a Delta flight was the cause of one dissatisfied Tweet mentioned.)

Brown, who was up first, focused her presentation squarely on the topic of airline Social Media strategy, sharing the considerable efforts American Airlines has gone through to build and support one of the largest, most sophisticated and most responsive Social Media teams in aviation.

Brown told attendees that developing an advanced mobile platform empowers American Airlines employees to respond better to customer’s needs. By giving mobile devices to their staff, hand-held mobile devices to agents and tablet devices to flight attendants, American puts its employees on equal footing with their customers. It gives their staff a chance to be aware of concerns raised on Social Media around them, and to find answers to the issues customers need quickly, via their online connection.

As Brown explained to attendees, American Airlines is well-aware of just how connected the flying public has become; how at much more at ease a certain segment of the public are communicating via Social Media, compared to face-to-face communications. She shared an anecdote of a passenger grateful for their onboard Wi-Fi connection which they used to order pizza for the family back home who then tweeted about how thrilled they were to do that. This example personalised the experience of today’s connected traveller beautifully.

When it was time for Sundaram to speak, his presentation revealed a misunderstanding of the objective for the discussion and perhaps even an unfortunate lack of preparation. However, the presentation did manage to embody an optimum example of a one-way brand conversation. From the beginning, the presentation consisted of a series of amusing ad-clips for the airline, around JetBlue’s 2010 “If you wouldn’t take it on the ground” campaign. The clippings on YouTube have now been marked private, so I can no longer share them here, but they did make it to the 2014 presentation by Sundaram all the same.

After interrupting his own presentation with this peppering of humorous clips, Sundaram ultimately came down to the gist of his argument: JetBlue puts people first and therefore places a greater importance on a strong traditional customer service platform.

To justify the difference between JetBlue’s social media strategy and that of American Airlines, Sundaram explained that a great number of the airline’s passengers are Snow-Birds. The presumption of this argument is that older passengers are less likely to be active on Social Media. This is actually in direct conflict with trends watchers who point-out the strong dynamic of the Silver Surfer demographic. Peter Knapp, Global Creative Officer at Landor explained the travel needs of Silver Surfers to me for a recent interview.

The Silver Surfer is mobile, connected, active, and eager to see the world. These passengers have the financial resources available to them to travel often. Their numbers are on the rise and they are likely to become the darlings of aviation (in terms of sheer passenger numbers) in the coming decades–if aviation can manage to realise that they exist and that their special needs for cabin comfort and mobility must be accommodated. First, aviation must acknowledge that they exist.

By Catherine Scott (Matti) [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
When an airline indicates that having a customer base composed of older passengers is a reason not to re-examine their communications, it reflects a misunderstanding of the lifestyle habits of those stated core customers. It assumes an antiquated stereotype.

Granny may once have been content to stay at home and knit– waiting for her grandkids to remember to call–but today she is most likely to stay up to date with those grandkids on Skype, get on a plane and go visit when she likes, and fill her Facebook page not just with pictures of those lovely grandkids but also of the many spots she visits in her travels.

She will have a lot of friends on Facebook, having nurtured strong relationships all her life, and she will engage actively in conversations with those friends.  She’ll share details of her daily life and insights into what she likes in the world around her. She’ll almost certainly own a smart-phone.  She will likely use an iPad or other tablet device on the plane, to read her favourite book and keep up with the latest news. She’ll also enjoy live-streamed inflight entertainment where available.

JetBlue has everything she needs. A strong comfortable cabin product, free Fly-Fi (the airline has just extended its free connectivity offer which was originally due to end this month), LiveTV, healthy snack options onboard, good schedules, reasonable fares–even agreements with international airlines which would help today’s Silver-Surfer grandmother achieve her life-long ambition of enjoying fresh sashimi at the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo (to name just one option).

None of this negates the value of Sundaram’s argument that a strong Customer Service platform is essential. Passengers will still want to pick up the phone and reach someone from time to time. They will certainly like to see a person at the terminal to help them navigate through the ever-growing maze today’s airport-malls have become. Everyone appreciates personalised service.

Most people would bring up a broken tray-table to the attention of a flight attendant instead of, or at least before, tweeting about it. They might even ask the flight attendant to help them find another seat.  A flight attendant well-trained in customer service would do his best to find a seat for that passenger in good working order. (Success or failure to do so would most likely hinge on how crowded the aircraft was at the time.)

Yes, customer service is imperative. In fact, without a good customer service mindset, there can be no good Social Media engagement.

American Airlines, it must be said, also has a good customer service platform. Brown did not make that aspect of the airline’s service platform as prominent a part of her presentation because the topic of the presentation was Social Media strategy.  Her presentation was on-topic.

What experts say about American, JetBlue, and other airlines on Social Media

According to a report this May by Joyce Manalo on Skift, JetBlue actually has a very good presence on Twitter and Facebook. [NB I contribute to Skift, but I reference them here as experts because they specialise in travel intelligence and carefully track the performance of travel brands on social media.]

JetBlue comes a far second to American among US Carriers on Facebook with 1,536,546 LIKES versus 4,241,211 for the world’s largest carrier–but it is second. Based on the relative size of the two carriers, JetBlue’s performance is respectable. United, for example comes in seventh in the ranking with a worrying 149,288 Facebook LIKES.

On Twitter, JetBlue far outranks American and other US carriers in followers. It had just over 1.8 Million followers at the time of the report, versus American Airlines’ 837,227.

Southwest comes in a close second with over 1.65 Million Twitter followers, but other major airlines fall far behind.

Manalo points out: “Delta and United’s combined Twitter followers is less than half of JetBlue’s 1,815,775 followers.”

So what happened in Brussels? Why didn’t Sundaram take advantage of this position in his presentation?

It’s always possible (though terribly sad, if true) that Sundaram didn’t have the Skift stats when he prepared the presentation. It’s also possible that his advertising department prepared the presentation for him. (One would think so because of the number of ads presented, though one wonders why they felt they had to reach back to 2010 for those).

Part of the answer can be found in the Skift report.

“JetBlue tweets much less than American, Delta, and United, and focuses less on customer service,” Manalo states.

Here, customer service specifically means customer service replies on Twitter. As Sundaram tried to explain to attendees at the SITA IT Summit, JetBlue believes those types of communications are best left to telephone centres, reservations personnel, gate agents, flight crew, etc.

Given that JetBlue has such a large following on Social Media, despite this lack of emphasis on a Social Media engagement, one must conclude that they are a popular, having developed a strong brand identity in other ways.

In fact, their brand is strong enough to be resilient on Social Media even with little focus and even when things go very wrong.

The Winter of Travellers’ Discontent

Just this January, with the terrible winter which struck the US at its peak, Jason Clampet Co-Founder and Head of Content at Skift, put together a very useful report on how effectively the US carriers managed flight disruptions on Social Media. During this crisis, American Airlines proved the value of its Social Media prowess. It tweeted 1,869 times to its customers with updates and to address their troubles on a single Sunday, compared to 989 tweets from JetBlue.

More importantly, American Air maintains lightning quick response time on Twitter. At the time of this report by Clampet, 97.9% of American’s tweets were direct responses to its customers, and their average response time was twelve minutes.

When you talk, however you talk, It’s nice to know somebody is listening.

During the Summit, American replied to my mentions about their presentations quickly too, even though I was not tweeting a service complaint. It was nice just to know they were paying attention to the greater conversation around them.

I mentioned JetBlue too in my Tweets during the event, but never heard back. I’m not suggesting that JetBlue needed to reply to my mention. I’m only stating facts which show awareness of mentions and engagement.

The snow storms this winter did damage to JetBlue’s business, which ultimately led to the departure of their COO Rob Maruster. No airline can control the weather, but every company can and must control how they respond to a crisis.

That JetBlue’s Social Media status remains strong in May, despite the weather-related flight fiascos in January, reflects loyalty from that Social Media fan-base. Again, reflecting a strong brand–one in which JetBlue has invested considerably over the years.

JetBlue has spent money to make money like very few airlines.

It invested heavily in a top-of-the-line cabin product, inflight entertainment, connectivity services, new aircraft, slots, advertising, you name it. During the Summit, Sundaram announced that JetBlue will launch another satellite in orbit to support the growth of its popular Fly-Fi inflight connectivity product. Sundaram also joked that while passengers can order Pizza on American’s Wi-Fi, they can watch Netflix on JetBlue.

Yet, the presentation from Sundaram would lead one to believe the airline is unwilling to invest in growing its Social Media team, deciding it’s a better use of money to invest in traditional Customer Service.

Why not ramp up its Social Media strategy, and team, to contend with all those Fly-Fi connected passengers who might choose to complain on Social Media inflight? Why place the emphasis on a traditional customer services platform? Why not both?

Sundaram also emphasised the importance of improving self-service at airports, and automating the passenger process; something which many airlines, airports, industry watchers, and even passengers agree is essential to that seamless travel experience.

However, the success of that strategy depends on passengers reaching someone in some way when things go wrong. With fewer check-in staff, gate agents reduced or eliminated, and limited feet on the ground to care for the needs of customers, then there must be a multi-platform strategy for timely live response to passenger questions, and that should include taking advantage of Social Media.

Even if, as Sundaram indicates, a significant part of JetBlue’s customer base are Snow Birds, those same Snow Birds Tweet. According to Knapp, the tech-savvy Silver Surfer will appreciate many of the technology enabled self-service features, but they will want effective way-finding assistance (tech-enabled or people-enabled), they will also appreciate having someone available to turn to for answers when things go wrong.

Is It Wise to Get Customers Online InFlight Then Leave Them Alone With It?

If an airline choses not to expand its response channels, while reducing its personal presence and increasing the bandwidth through which lost customers can reach out to the part of the world which will listen, then a different “perfect-storm” is brewing in the horizon. One far more chilling than the winter storms of 2013/14.

It is always possible that there is more happening behind the scenes than Sundaram told attendees at the Summit. No airline has to divulge competitive strategy at a conference, nor would they be wise to do so. But, Sundaram appeared ill-prepared to present information on the topic of Social Media, and gave the impression that Social Media is an afterthought, even stating outright that traditional Customer Service platforms are a priority for JetBlue.  One has to wonder what is going on.

Key to customer service, on any platform, is understanding the customer. And the customer is always right. At least the customer believes she is right. That is what really matters.  She will share with the world just how right she is on Social Media, even when the brand she’s talking about isn’t talking back.  Others are there to listen.

People who live a connected life aren’t detaching from their reality by doing so. They enhance their reality by bringing others into a greater conversation around it. What passengers say in this greater conversation happens in real-time and today’s words spreads at digital speed–which leaves aviation, after breaking the sound barrier, very much behind the times.

Often the more controversial, provocative, even occasionally brand-hostile communications go viral faster than others. Airlines who do not boot-up on the web and in the cloud, won’t accomplish much with boots on the ground alone when fighting to defend their brand.

That’s not a problem for tomorrow but a reality today–as the larger conversation of the summit (which happened live on Twitter, and spread through other social networks, blogs, travel sites, news services, you name it) demonstrated.

In fairness, Sundaram is right. It all starts with a strong Customer Service platform, and it always requires an impeccable Customer Service mindset.

Despite all this, JetBlue outperforms not only larger US Carriers in Social Media but also many larger International carriers. Aviation, often still stuck in its we-broke-the-sound-barrier high, can sometimes be a bit slow on adoption of technology with good reason: money. But the SITA IT Summit proved that we mustn’t generalise. There were plenty of airlines and airports present who’ve proven they’re ready to pick up the pace and keep up with technology.

While the other 2010 commercials from JetBlue which Sundaram presented at the Summit were marked private on YouTube, this one from CEO Dave Barger, who may or may not be retiring in 2015, remains–and it is particularly relevant.

JetBlue places an emphasis on “Being Human”, and that is the likely basis for their emphasis on traditional Customer Service. There is really no harm to that. However, as American Airlines clearly understands, humans today are mobile creatures and connected. Understanding that there has been a quantum shift in how people interact and adapting to accommodate that new service standard is just good business.

You can never know when a tray-table will break.

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