Sabre + Skift Present:

High Cost of a Social‑Reactive Strategy

Stratojets commissioned a study of airline social-media performance to highlight the alternative of flying private to avoid the hassle. The results of this review were interesting beyond the context in which they were presented. They reveal the brand-energy drain and corporate resources spent on responding to dissatisfied customers, as well as a trend of consumer mood when interacting with airlines.

Some airlines are good at empathizing with customers when troubles occur along the journey — finding many ways to say “I’m sorry.” Of course, one perspective is to commend these top performers on their empathy for customers experiencing hardships, but another way to look at this data is to consider the significant chunk of time spent using social media to apologize for complaints that could have been eliminated through a proactive digital response to disruptions or service failures.

Is it preferable to spend limited airline capital on social media staff who spend up to 40 percent of their time apologizing and who are being measured for their quick response time? Or does it make more business sense to create automated digital systems that inform customers of the service failures that could affect them before they experience the service failures?

And let’s look at the customer emotional response to all of this reactive social media empathy. Again, airlines could pat themselves on the back for earning more than 100,000 “thank-yous,” and, clearly, permanent digital thank-you records are certainly positive. However, what’s missing from this study is the percentage of thank-yous belonging to the previous empathetic apologies for complaints about service disruptions.

A “thank you for fixing the mess” doesn’t have the same brand currency value as a “thank you for making my trip magnificent.” Furthermore, the complaints broken up by popular terms are also a bit deceiving. Each on its own is much smaller than thank-yous, but in total, negative messages outnumber positive ones.

Let’s look also at the common terms used. “Delayed, late, cancelled” are relatively unsurprising considering the nature of the airline business — with its inevitable service failures, outside of the airline’s control, such as those caused by weather or air-traffic-management issues. However, digital customer-centric systems could simply inform customers of delays in advance and provide assistance such as alternative bookings, upgraded lounge visits for frequent flyers, digital coupons for complimentary meals or hotel arrangements.

Imagine that each customer had been prompted with positive and proactive reactions to the same disruptions when they occur. Perhaps only a smaller percentage would resort to social media to share those positive experiences with friends, but the positive shares would become the record and the social-media team could spend more time sharing positive messages and thanking customers for their compliments instead.

Seat complaints also present opportunities. For example, smartly designed customer-centric digital-retailing system could offer high-profile and loyal customers discounted upgrades when load factors are high. The level of profanity used according to this study is alarming. It reflects the intensity of negative emotions associated with the brand at this point. One might write a few of these events off to an individual’s habit of resorting to profanity when frustrated but, again, it is a permanent record to be reviewed, analyzed, talked about and reported on.

Leaving customers alone in the journey, with their only recourse to express brand dissatisfaction in the public forum is simply poor brand management. It creates a permanent digital record of a service failure that might once have slipped under the radar, in an analogue age.

In today’s mobile always-on society, each occurrence is recorded to feed future analyses like these, open to data spins, launching articles in numerous publications on the performance. Airlines spend a considerable portion of their budget on advertising and work hard to earn positive press. So why operate with reactive customer-service strategies that fodder negative press and present a financial burden in staff hired expressly to avoid the social conversation from getting out of hand?

As Crimson Hexagon stated in a special report on airline performance on social media last year, “Thousands of customers take their complaints and questions to social media every day. It is easy to feel the ramifications as a business when people are more likely to talk about their experiences on social media than they are to call an airline’s customer-service number.”

The report goes on to propose that effective customer service on social media is critical to customer satisfaction, but that is short of ambition. To suggest that engaging customers to address problems more often through overloaded social teams is akin to saying that we must continuously add staff to emergency rooms and build new hospitals because we lack basic preventive medicine.

By chasing the “social-media responsiveness” target alone, airlines are missing opportunities to engage with customers and provide solutions before there are any issues to complain about. Passengers may still tend to take to social media to complain — there is an inherent dynamic of social media as a tool for griping more often than praising — but the number of complaints social-media teams have to handle would be reduced with well-timed digital customer-centric solutions, saving airlines from having to continue growing those departments as their customer base grows.

Moreover, there is such a thing as positive social chatter. By identifying the various travel “nexts” during which customers have gone on social media to complain, we can build a road map for “aha” moments. At this point, social-media sentiment metrics become useful tools to measure the effectiveness of customer-centric retailing. Is negative sentiment high? What can we do to build sufficient positive customer memory that might address the negative impressions?