Customer Service: Where Social Media’s Rubber Meets the Road

Social Media Needs Customer Service

Face it, airlines have it tough with record breaking bad weather, thin margins and under-served customers. Flights are packed. With delayed flights, too much carry-on luggage, and intrusive TSA screenings, most air travelers aren’t happy. To put it mildly, the airlines’ customer service deck is stacked against them before the first traveler gets to the gate. To help, airlines leverage social media to broadcast flight information and handle some customer service overflow. Unfortunately, this is insufficient to manage many customer service issues.

Recently, my friend social media guru Peter Shankman, who tends to fly Continental and wrote the book on social media and customer service, got upset that United Airlines charged him $50 to fly standby on an earlier flight than the one he was booked on. To put this in context, the United Airlines agent helping Peter probably faced the following challenges reducing her course of action.

  1. Limited systems support combined with dinosaur technology.
  2. No background information. Since Peter does most of his traveling on Continental, she wasn’t alerted to his track record as a globetrotter and didn’t give him the red carpet treatment.
  3. No real-time social media identifier. While Peter’s a social media rock star, he’s no Justin Bieber in terms of name or face recognition.
  4. Company protocols to follow with limited ability to modify the rules or make exceptions.
  5. Line of impatient travelers waiting and expressing their discontentment.

This may seem natural given the challenges airlines face, but to acerbate United Airlines’ social media woes, Peter has over 47,000 friends on Facebook, of which 122 liked his post and 39 took the time to comment on it.  Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that United Airlines has a propensity for being tone deaf when it comes to social media even after its experience with United Breaks Guitars.

Peter’s experience underscores social media’s challenges in terms of what it can deliver and what customers expect. Even with the best social media monitoring tools available, United Airlines still may not have been able to serve Peter better since he doesn’t fly their airline very often and he doesn’t talk about airlines. While United Airlines and Continental are in the process of combining, they may not have exchanged customer information yet. Until this happens, Peter may have to keep paying a premium unless United Airlines now discovers his dissatisfaction and flags his record.

In a social media world, what can a company like United Airlines do to improve its customer experience? While social media experts may not like it, the answer has little to do with social media and everything to do with customer understanding:  Give customers the best possible experience, try to resolve their problems, and, when you can’t, work with them to reach an alternate solution. Here are eight customer service suggestions.

  1. Provide sufficient training so customer service agents can effectively represent your firm.
  2. Empower customer service representatives to take a variety of actions and escalate difficult problems, not just play it safe and stick to the rules.
  3. Support customer service activities with an appropriate budget. This means having sufficient staff that speak your customers’ language, are empathetic and can clarify and solve customers’ problems.
  4. Have up-to-date technology including strong CRM (customer relationship management systems), social media marketing monitoring and competitive assessment. Further, these systems must communicate with each other.
  5. Hire nice people who understand what your company’s vision is and how to treat your customers and the public. Is your team happy and excited about dealing with your customers and making them satisfied?
  6. Get management on-board. In many companies, customer service is an expense center and low on the corporate totem pole. Management must spend time on the firing line listening to what customers are saying. Realize that customer service is the old fashioned version of social media!
  7. Incent customer service staff to create positive customer experiences. Zappos makes all of its employees go through customer service training. Their representatives are empowered to go the extra mile and delight customers. Make Tony Hsieh’s Delivering Happiness required reading for your employees.
  8. Use other communications platforms to engage with customers. While these may be good early in their technology life cycles, once more users join, service can go down.

Bear in mind that in today’s connected world, your firm can be the next one to face these problems. They’re not limited to airlines! To this end, do your best to prepare your customer service department and other customer facing departments as part of your social media and crisis management planning.

How do you think that United Airlines should have handled Peter’s situation? What should United Airlines do to make amends to Peter? How would you incorporate social media into the solution?

Happy marketing,
Heidi Cohen

Tip of my hat to Peter Shankman for allowing me to use this example.

Another tip of my hat to the #SMMeasure chat for discussing the issues of integrating social media across the corporation.

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Photo credit: wbaiv via Flickr

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4 Responses to Customer Service: Where Social Media’s Rubber Meets the Road

  1. Hi guys.

    Heidi, you missed one key point in an otherwise flawless article: The merger between Continental and United resulted in a new level of “elite status” on Continental, called “Presidential Platinum.” This was designed to match United’s 1k status. At 1k, United members get free waivers on earlier flights.

    Because I’m PrezPlat, essentially 1k, I should have received it, as well. Due to internal communications breakdowns, i.e., “We don’t know what the new rules are,” I didn’t.

    Putting it into that context, it’s not about my 300k miles flown per year, or the $100k I spend on air travel. It’s internal communications breakdowns, assuring that I’ll fly Continental and give them my $100k that won’t go on United’s balance sheet in 2011.

    Hope that clears it up, Sheldon. I wasn’t asking for anything free. I was asking for something I’d earned. Big, big difference.

    • Heidi Cohen says:


      Thank you for clarifying this point. I didn’t understand the difference between Continental and United’s loyalty programs.

      Your comments make a more important point that, especially during critical times whether it’s a merger or a bad economic situation, companies need ensure that they’re communicating well with all of their customers. This is particularly true for a company’s best customers! In my corporate roles, I’ve spent a lot of time assuaging customer concerns.

      Happy marketing,
      Heidi Cohen

  2. 40deuce says:

    I don’t think the airline should do anything to make amends to Peter (no offense Peter).

    Airlines are one industry that are constantly under fire. Like you said, there’s just so much that can go wrong that are out of humans hands. As well, these employees have a protocol that they have to follow, and unless Peter’s file is tagged in someway as a “special person” there’s no way for the front line employees to distinguish him from any other customer (not that customers should be treated differently anyways).

    However, I do agree that some businesses (airlines included) could use social media for better customer service. Not in the way of checking out our Klout scores to see if I should be treated better than you, but at least by gaining insights into how they could improve in the future. If people are constantly talking about their problems with a company (which we see frequently in the airline industry) these companies should be listening. The best insights on how to improve are going to come from their customers directly because they’re the people who use the service first hand. Granted there’s going to be a lot selfish whining in there, but just by listening to what customers think needs to be improved on and then trying to act on these insights is a great improvement.
    If there’s one great thing that we can get out of social media, it’s people’s personal opinions. Just by hearing them and taking them into consideration and implementing a few new things based on these ideas is a huge step in the right direction.

    Sheldon, Community Manager for Sysomos

    • Heidi Cohen says:


      Thank you for your thoughtful insights. Interestingly, your views echo those of Frank Eliason who tweeted his response earlier.

      All companies, regardless of size, industry or social media prowess, should treat all customers well. It’s just good business practice and polite manners.

      To clarify Peter’s story, he’s a very loyal Continental Airlines customer and he travels a lot for business (Read his blog or follow him on Twitter). Therefore, he’s an airlines’ ideal customer. In my experience these customers are a VERY small percentage of a firm’s total customer base. Since United and Continental have merged, Peter assumed that the two companies would have an integrated view of him as a stellar customer. This is old fashioned database marketing at its best.

      Based on my experience, many companies treat their best and most loyal customers differently with special perks (like no fee for flying on an earlier flight.) This is why road warriors like Peter travel on one airline where possible. He’s not the only high usage business traveler I know who does this or gets these perks.

      While I agree with you and Frank Eliason regarding giving customers with high follower counts or Klout scores better service, especially since these metrics are still challenged, the reality is that a customer with a strong voice and influence in your niche can have a big impact on their audience and how a brand is perceived. In the absence of better systems and other information, companies need to have a way to distinguish who will broadcast their message.

      Please feel free to continue the conversation,
      Happy marketing,
      Heidi Cohen

      BTW–Before these social media platforms were available, Peter got a call from Continental’s CEO who realized that he was upset about a similar incident. Peter was so impressed that he emailed his large network of colleagues, friends and family to let them know about Continental’s responsiveness.

      Disclaimer-My comments are based on my assumptions and past experience. They are my opinions and not based on data.