Airlines & #EmotionalBaggage on Twitter

After a long weekend in Las Vegas with barely any sleep, I embarked on my long journey home at 2pm Sunday afternoon (west coast time). I was flying first from Las Vegas to Los Angeles, prepared to enjoy a long dinner and a celebratory glass of wine at LAX during my layover (I had just found out that I had passed the Bar Exam!), and I was set to fly the redeye flight back to Boston. Upon Delta texting me an update (as I requested) that my flight would be delayed by an hour, I decided it was a good opportunity to have a glass of wine and watch some football at the restaurant near my gate. While enjoying my brief delay, I received another text that my flight was to be delayed by an additional 20 minutes. I extended my restaurant stay while catching up on some emails and then headed back to my gate to await the boarding process. When I got to my gate, I saw that Delta had delayed my flight for a 3rd time – they had not texted me this update as they had the previous 2 times. I went to the gate desk to inquire about any possible further delays and tried to explain I had a connecting flight to catch (at this point, I was still okay for time). The Delta employee refused to tell me why the flight was delayed and ignored my concerns. So what did I do next?

  Screen Shot 2015-10-27 at 4.29.13 PMI sent out a tweet to Delta asking why my flight kept getting delayed. No response. My flight was then delayed for a 4th time (no text from Delta, again) – now on my 4th hour at the airport. I went back to the desk and asked politely what potential options I would have if the flight was further delayed, as I could not afford to miss my connection. My politeness was returned with sheer annoyance and rude brush-offs by the Delta employee, who simply refused to address my concerns.

Now I was becoming increasingly frustrated with Delta and their lack of customer service.

Screen Shot 2015-10-27 at 4.29.36 PMI sent out a second tweet, this time mentioning my preference of JetBlue over Delta. Finally, this tweet elicited a response, but it was a meek one at best.

Screen Shot 2015-10-27 at 4.29.50 PMAfter that experience, I knew I needed to investigate and write a post about airlines, twitter, and customer service. Airline Twitter feeds are the digital equivalent of an airport customer service counter, filled with complaints, travel woes, and pleas to hold a gate so that a traveler can make their connection. Addressing travelers’ “emotional baggage” in 140 characters or less is a huge challenge that airlines need to overcome, and keeping up with this job requires 24/7 attention.

1. Delta = Suspicious:

Screen Shot 2015-10-27 at 1.30.37 PMAccording to a CNN article I read, the majority of customers’ tweets on airlines’ twitter feeds are dominated by dissatisfaction and impatience – except for Delta. The article states that Delta’s feed is “unusually lacking in negative inquiries” and seems to be “relentlessly cheerful” and “oddly flirtatious.” I dug deeper by investigating Delta’s feed and my two tweets (one a mere inquiry, the other a complaint and the response to the complaint) were nowhere to be found. Unusual indeed…and quite suspicious.

2. Twitter Personas:

Developing a persona on Twitter is more of an art than a science, and airlines have had varying results in doing so. Sometimes airlines have a calm and soothing presence like a crisis hotline or a therapist; other times they can be “impressively unhelpful” and “resolutely immune to sarcasm.”

Not all airlines have been successful in creating a successful persona. American Airlines, however, does have a good strategy. The director of social media, Jonathan Pierce, was quoted saying:

“We encourage our customer service representatives to be conversational, approachable, and that it’s OK to have a little fun when appropriate…striking the right tone is about reading the signals in the conversation.”

The downside to this strategy, though, is that not all employees will be able to read the signals and sometimes the conversations can go terribly wrong (i.e. US Airways recently made an “honest mistake” by replying to a customer tweet with a pornographic image).

3. Separate Social Media Customer Service Twitter Account:

Airlines are faced with the decision of whether to include customer service communications on their universal account or whether to have a separate customer service account. A recent study found that having a separate customer service account is actually less effective because a considerable amount of questions were left unanswered in the main account and the majority of travelers were not redirected to the dedicated customer service account. American Airlines and British Airways have both determined that a universal account is better suited for their customers (leaving the work for the airlines not for their customers), and have responded to a greater percentage of questions than other airlines. Screen Shot 2015-10-27 at 2.33.33 PMConversely, Delta has two accounts – @Delta and @DeltaAssist. While @DeltaAssist appears to be responding to inquiries more often than not, there were significantly more questions being asked to @Delta – of which only a mere 4% were responded to by either @Delta or @DeltaAssist (I guess I am not the only displeased Delta customer).

The study determined that brands that have universal accounts perform 12% better than airlines with dedicated accounts based on Questions-to-Reply-Rates.

4. Exceptional Customer Service on Twitter – JetBlue:

JetBlue excels in responsiveness, a quality that ultimately allowed them to excel at customer service. Not only does JetBlue engage with their happy customers, but they also respond to and help frustrated customers as quickly as possible. JetBlue ensures they are responsive to their customers because they understand it is important for continued customer loyalty. A great example of this can be seen by @yanesval and her recent experience traveling with JetBlue:

Screen Shot 2015-10-27 at 3.02.13 PM

5. How Customers Should Complain on Twitter:

The airline industry is both blessed and cursed by customer service via Twitter – it is a great new medium through which to solve problems, but customer tweets can be difficult and confusing to respond to. Luckily for us, Forbes has provided recommendations for how customers can affect the customer service they receive:

  • Take Emotion Out of the Equation – if you want an airline’s help, stick to the facts, talk through solutions and communicate with civility. Apart from releasing steam, an impassioned tweet will not provide you much benefit.
  • Use Your Twitter Tools Effectively – tweet at the appropriate handle (i.e. @DeltaAssist rather than @Delta – even though I know it is a pain to know when and who to tweet at when you are having travel woes!), calculate your tweet to be concise yet effective, and keep the conversation on the same public thread so the airline can better track your problems.
  • Empower the Airline – supply adequate resources for customer service to help by including information such as departure date, flight number, departure/arrival airport, name if not obvious, and baggage tag numbers when needed.
  • Know the Limitation of the Airline and Your Schedule – give the airline an idea of how they can help you, but know that online agents face certain limitations in doing so.
  • Escalate the Right Complaints – Twitter is a great medium for short-lived problems that require a quick response, but it is not the ultimate tool for categorizing and filing complaints (best to do so directly on the airlines’ website).

imagesAdmittedly, maybe I was not as strategic as I could have been when tweeting @Delta and then @DeltaAssist on Sunday, but I still believe that Delta and other airlines should be aware of their customers’ willingness to participate in the customer service process. Make it easy for your customers to complain/praise and quickly respond to them – you will not drive customer loyalty without doing so!

Has anyone else had a similar experience with social media customer service with an airline, and did you feel like the airline was successful in driving loyalty? Did they hinder the process?

15 comments

  1. Great post jaimie! The airline industry is definitely one of the most prevalent examples of using SM for customer service. Personally I am lucky that I have not had any bad flying experiences that necessitated tweeting at an airline. Its pretty funny that once you tweeted about jetblue, delta finally responded to you. That definitely got their attention! I also found your point about having one twitter per airline pretty interesting. Its amazing how something as simple as that can affect the response rate so much. I can understand how angry customers would just tweet @delta and then get even more angry after no response. Great advice on how to tweet effectively even when you’re upset about flight issues. Interesting how both you and prof. kane had bad flight experiences in the same week. Looks like despite all the tweets airlines still haven’t been able to deliver better service.

  2. Really interesting post, Jaimie,and glad you were able to make it back safely! The airline industry has become the perfect example of how social media can be a more direct solve to customer problems, particularly because airports/airplanes are one of the few places where we have more time than we know what to do with stuck in one place. I think your point about picking your battles is really important and applies to any industry. However, I also feel as though voicing your complaint is worthwhile no matter the case because the company may not be able to fix your immediate situation, but they can see patterns in our tweets and work to prevent situations from happening in the future. For instance, Whole Foods does a good job of listening to product issues, such as the inconvenience of opening individual sugar packets, and then adjust their own new products or the assortment that they chose to buy from manufacturers to meet the consumers needs. It might seem like a meaningless post, but Twitter gives everyone a voice and good companies listen!

    1. Thank you for your comment, Matt! I completely agree that more companies could learn a thing or two from Whole Foods and should utilize Twitter complaints to rectify and prevent future issues. I hope that, at the very least, my comments to Delta will help them realize they have some customer relations issues at the Las Vegas airport and that they work to prevent rudeness from occurring to future Delta flyers.

  3. Great post, Jamie! I’m now curiously awaiting my first ever travel experience with Jet Blue next Wednesday, hoping though there won’t be a need for angry tweets about airline mishaps. Which brings me to my main point: I think Valeria’s tweet applauding Jet Blue for great CS is what companies might also need more of. I can see how employees in charge of company SM accounts can get very frustrated and discouraged when all they hear about is complaining. Since SM is be default a two-way avenue, maybe customers should consider a bit more often to appreciate good things happening. As with any online reviews, venting about negative things is always easier done than showing appreciation for a job well done.
    Overall, I find it fascinating that Twitter has become an official channel for customer service, and it will be interesting to see who succeeds in making the most of it.

    1. Thank you, Christine! I am very interested to hear about how your first travel experience with JetBlue went! I am personally a huge JetBlue fan so hopefully you had an experience closer to @yanesval ‘s recent travels rather than mine with Delta!

  4. Thanks for mention me in your blog!! I feel that made it easy to choose this blog to comment and also because is really good. I think is really interesting that you analyze the way a customer should complain on Twitter, I thinking normally people just feel frustrated and want a media to help them vent. But with aggressive tweets and lack of content, I think the airline is going to struggle more to respond. I like how you took my example as the other side of a coin. My Jet Blue flight was having delay problems (4 hours too), but they act in such a great way (giving free food and $100), that I had to thank them. I actually never tweet to companies, but that day I was doing my blog, and I think this social media class has made me more conscious about companies and how they act in the digital world (also I wanted to see if they were going to give me something for free, for giving them good publicity, but they didn’t haha).
    But once again great blog, sorry that your experience wasn’t like mine, but good point about knowing which is the actual twitter account of the company, I will believe it was @Delta.
    PS Congrats on the BAR

    1. Thank you!!! After hearing about your great experiences with JetBlue, I know that I will have to fly with them on my next trip! :)

  5. ariellebudney · ·

    Great post Jaimie! I thought it was really funny that Delta ignored your first tweet and only responded when you specifically mentioned a competitor. It’s important to respond to every customer concern, not just the ones that make you look especially bad in front of competition. Airlines are in a tough position in terms of customer service because there are so many aspects of the process that cannot be directly controlled. The person replying to the customers on Twitter does not actually have any power over the situation, but they can still improve the experience by responding to concerns. Even if there’s nothing they can do, replying makes the customer feel validated and cared for, and they will be more likely to fly with the airline again. Also, great job with the tips on how to communicate with airlines. I will definitely check back on this post the next time I fly!

  6. The tough thing about the airline industry is that it represents an absolute logistical nightmare (for every airline). Air traffic control, weather, flight crews, the FAA, aircraft positioning, aircraft maintenance and gate availability are each like planets that have to align in order for any trip to run smoothly. And somehow (magic maybe?), plenty of airlines get this right far more often than not.
    As a result, I feel like travelers need to be aware of this before they travel. No industry is perfect, but airlines have all odds stacked against them. So understanding that any number of things can cause a delay or cancellation of a flight is something I wish I saw more of in airports. In most circumstances it’s a maintenance thing or an FAA regulation that is being enforced around passenger safety.
    Thus by nature, airlines are going to have to have all of their bases covered as far as customer service goes, and on SM is a place where they work very hard to get things right. Though it can help to bring things to an airline’s attention via SM, I’ve found that the key to getting to where you need to be despite of what the departure status reads for your flight is to outsmart the system, and this doesn’t even concern using SM.
    Know the hubs of the airline your flying on, and look at departures to them. It is an absolute priority for major airlines to make sure that planes that need to be in hubs get there, so they will do whatever it take to get a plane there at some point. If you know that your flight from LAS-LAX is heavily delayed to the point that you’ll miss your connection (I happen to know that Delta only has 2 non-stops daily from LAX-BOS [morning and redeye], except on Sundays where there’s only the redeye), and given that neither of those airports are major delta hubs, then look for an alternative. For Delta, I’d look at DTW, MSP, SLC, ATL and JFK, then find their respective connections to BOS. Most airlines do a good job of packing flights full, but there may be a seat open here or there. But once you realize that you’re missing your scheduled connection start building a list of flight numbers and connections through hubs that would get you to where you need to be as soon as possible. Bringing a list of 5 or so other options that can get you to where you need to be will save the gate agents a ton time that they don’t need to spend on you and they’ll be infinitely more likely to help your situation.
    I realized I strayed pretty far off the point of the blog here, but I guess the point I’m trying to make is that airlines have it tough, and complaining (as with most things in life) typically won’t get travelers far. The airlines want to get every flight out safely and on-time but it isn’t always possible, so how they act on SM is really just a way for them to mask over things they have little control over.

    Congrats on the Bar exam and hopefully you don’t give up on Delta.. Delays and cancellations happen on every airline. Oh yea, and for disclosure: my Mom has been a flight attendant for Delta Airlines for more than 3 decades so maybe there is some bias here…

    1. Thank you for your comments, Ryan! I really appreciate your opinions and how you offered a different perspective on the emotional baggage that Delta/airlines in general have to deal with. I agree that some things are out of airlines’ control, but the one thing they can control is how their employees treat their customers – especially in a face-to-face setting. My flight from LAX to BOS was much better, though, and all of the flight attendants were lovely! I am sure that in the future I will give Delta another shot, just maybe not from the Las Vegas airport :)

  7. Woo hoo! Congrats on the exam!!!

    I have been a bit curious as to why Delta uses DeltaAssist, especially if it means they’re overlooking customer complaints/ questions. It may be indicative of wanting to help regular customers, not just those who happen to be flying them. My experience has usually been good with them.

    1. Thank you, Professor Kane!! It makes sense that Delta would want to help their loyal customers with their issues over someone like me, who chose to fly Delta back to Boston solely because it was the cheapest ticket I could find on Kayak. Given yours and @ryanreede‘s comments, I am definitely willing to give Delta another shot!

  8. Very smart takeaways. So long as Twitter continues to grow in popularity, I foresee more and more companies taking on customer service functions with Twitter. One of the best parts about tweeting over conventional customer service is that a tweeted request is public and the reputation of the airline is threatened. Conventional customer service doesn’t allow for the same level of public accountability.

  9. Congratulations on the bar exam, Jaimie!!

    I’m of two minds when it comes to airlines’ use of social media. I think it’s a valuable tool, for sure, and one that can short-circuit problems before they escalate into the “real world”. However, I’m just not sure how effective it is in the world Ryan described. There are a bazillion moving parts in airplane travel. Getting them all right is tough.

    On the “real world” side of this, I have personally witnessed the most appallingly rude behavior by passengers toward airline gate agents and flight attendants. Yes, people are tired, hungry, and frustrated by travel. That does not, however, excuse people being assholes to a person who actually has no control over whether or not your plane leaves on time.

    Obviously, the Delta gate personnel should have been more courteous to you, Jaimie, but that’s only one side of the relationship. Nice post and great topic of discussion.

    1. Thank you, Jonah!! I completely agree that airline gate agents and flight attendants have to deal with some terribly rude passengers. As I am a very patient person, though, and treated that specific gate agent with respect, it just would have been nice to be treated with some respect in return. That being said, you made a really great point and I could have just caught that agent after some other passenger ripped him a new one, so to speak. Thanks for your comment!

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