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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