Want better airline service? Power up your smartphone

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Liz Owen needed help, and she needed it fast.

She had rescheduled a flight from Washington to Los Angeles on Virgin America to avoid superstorm Sandy, which was about to slam into the East Coast. But she’d forgotten to order a wheelchair.

Owen, who works for a nonprofit organization in Washington, had recently broken her foot, which was in a cast. “I had been on the phone on hold with Virgin America for well over an hour,” she remembers. Halfway to the airport, she decided to send Virgin America a tweet — a message on the microblogging service Twitter.

Within minutes, an airline representative messaged her back, offering to help. When she pulled up to the curb, a Virgin America representative greeted her. “Are you @LizOwenLA?” he asked, referring to her Twitter handle. He offered her a seat in a waiting wheelchair, which he’d borrowed from another airline.

When it comes to customer service, no one likes to wait. And new Internet-based technologies that some travel companies are embracing promise an almost instant response, like the one Owen got. If you carry a smartphone, these tools can lead to a better experience during the upcoming holiday travel season — if you know how to use them.

Not every company offers this shortcut to a quicker resolution, and even those with a sophisticated social media presence don’t respond as quickly as Virgin reacted to Owen. In that sense, it’s very much like any offline transaction: It matters who you are. But instead of presenting your elite frequent-flier memberships for preferred treatment, you need to show that you understand the rules of social media.

Among air carriers, Southwest Airlines and Virgin America have reputations for lightning-fast response to customer service problems noted online. A recent survey by the social media analytics firm Socialbakers found that as an industry, airlines were the second-fastest to reply to customers on sites such as Facebook, with an average response time of 188 minutes. (Telecommunications companies were faster.) Some carriers, such as KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, were significantly faster, replying to customers in less than half an hour.

But simply sending a tweet or posting to a company’s Facebook page isn’t always enough to get you noticed. “A lot of travel brands want to help,” says Twitter spokeswoman Rachael Horwitz. “But you have to look like a real customer.”

For starters, you need an account on Facebook, Google+ or Twitter — the three major social media sites — to capture a travel company’s attention. But that doesn’t guarantee that a company will reply, says Horwitz.

On Twitter, for example, your account comes with a default avatar that looks like an egg. Simply uploading a photo and adding some profile information will set you apart from spammers and ensure that a company knows you’re a real person.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll get a speedy response. Just as elite-level frequent fliers get preferred treatment, so also do users who have the greatest social clout. Travel companies eye your social media profile, looking for engagement (how active you are online) and the number of your “friends” or “followers.” It’s possible to instantly measure how important a user is by checking his or her score on Klout, a Web site that measures people’s new-media credibility.

As it turns out, Owen’s Twitter profile displayed her photo and suggested that she spent a fair amount of time communicating with other users. Owen also had a previous relationship with Virgin America; two years ago, she’d been a passenger on a transcontinental flight that made an emergency landing in Chicago. In that case as well, Twitter was instrumental in getting her concerns, and those of other customers, addressed. In the offline world, you might say that Owen and Virgin America were pen pals.

Virgin America’s social media guest relations manager, Tony Amrich, happened to see Owen’s plea for help on the day she was flying to Los Angeles. He phoned the airline’s ticket counter at Dulles International Airport, ensuring that she had a wheelchair.

As social media have evolved, so have Virgin America’s methods of communicating with passengers, Amrich says. Today, the airline is “transitioning” from talking by phone and e-mail to communicating via Twitter and Facebook. That allows the company to resolve a problem faster and often better. “Instead of potentially apologizing for a missed opportunity, I’m right there with the guest, working on solutions — or just saying, ‘Love you back,’ ” he says.

Sites like Twitter are evolving, too. Its latest user experience places a heavier emphasis on images, so now instead of just telling a company about a service problem, you can also show it to them (and to all your friends who happen to be watching).

Social media could change customer service, not just in the travel industry but for any business. I’ve used Twitter to help advise consumers with problems in real time, and I never use it more than during the holidays, when infrequent travelers need quick help.

By the way, you can find me at @elliottdotorg on Twitter, and I’m happy to answer any questions.

But I can also see this going sideways, with social media turning into nothing more than a branding opportunity with exceptions made for super-users with high Klout scores. That would be as much of a travesty as the current airline loyalty programs, which similarly segment passengers, rewarding the best customers with plush seats and gourmet food but leaving most others fighting for scraps in the main cabin.

Having a shortcut to better customer service is a powerful incentive to join one of the social media sites before your next trip. They’re all free to use, but a word of warning: They can be addictive.

But that’s another story.

Are airlines unfairly offering preferential treatment to passengers who can use social media?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at chris@elliott.org. Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • http://flyicarusfly.com/ Fly, Icarus, Fly

    I’m sure part of it has to do with visibility. Call companies on the phone or email and it’s just a one-on-one situation. Complain on social media and they have much more reason to fend off bad publicity and try to come out looking like the good guy. My cynical side thinks it’s all about perception rather than convenience…

  • Ari

    I use @deltaassist frequently; it’s much faster and more reliable than calling their phone line, especially during IROPS when the phone line backs up. It’s not a visibility thing, as most of the interaction is by direct message. They are very helpful and it’s really quite useful—also easier for them because they can have one-on-one interaction but not have to hold the line with you while their computers work, so more cost effective. Delta has done a good job with this.

  • $16635417

    I have to laugh. Thinking back years ago to how people were told to find a phone booth and call the airlines toll free number for assistance rather than wait in line at the airport. Did they get preferential treatment?

    Then cell phones came out, and only a few had them. They could stand in line AND call the 800 number to see which method got them an agent first. Did they get preferential treatment?

    Now, smartphone users and social media users have an advantage.

    Perhaps the poll question should be, “Have those that used and embraced evolving technological advances through history been able to gain an advantage, not just with airlines, but many other aspects of life?”

  • http://bidontravel.com/mobile/index.html Don Nadeau

    Twitter has become a win-win for passengers and airlines.

    For travelers, Twitter costs nothing to join & and in my experience answers come quickly.

    For airlines like Delta, Twitter provides a far more cost-effective customer service modality than voice interaction and fosters customer loyalty. There is no better way to bond with a customer than to resolve her or his problem quickly and satisfactory.

  • SoBeSparky

    As travelers trivialize social media inquiries, they too will suffer from the overload and have to wait. All of the “I am entitled to…” inquiries will simply swamp the airline representatives.

  • Charlie Funk

    Social media as a communication tool will produce the sort of response outlined in the piece until all are overwhelmed by users, just as phone communciation users have overwhelmed customer service groups.

  • flutiefan

    back when i started with my airline in 1999, i had passengers complaining about the good fares being online. they would whine that we were discriminating against people without computers (seriously).
    this social media thing is just the next step in offering services to customers. it’s not entitlement (yet) nor discrimination.

  • ExplorationTravMag

    In the travel world, to get the proper help you need, it’s not what you know, but who you know – or in this case, who you Tweet. I’ve gotten help from Delta via Twitter in the past. I really does work and it pays to have an active profile, too.

  • DChamp56

    On the other hand, why should “elite level” people get better service when they’re in trouble than a first-time flyer?
    EVERYONE should get great service, period.
    Like the old saying goes, if you don’t take care of the customer, someone else will.