Online Connectedness: JetBlue Gets It

Increasingly more consumers are using online social connectedness to effect positive change. Savvy, customer-oriented businesses recognize this and tap it as an extension of marketing programs. Look at JetBlue, post-Valentine’s Day. It makes a great case study for how decisive action, visible accountability, and a definitive plan for correction can gain notice in a connected marketplace.

The scenario that unfolded two weeks ago isn’t an unfamiliar one to travelers. As any frequent flyer knows, from the moment you enter the gate area, you belong to that airline. What happens next is totally and completely up to the carrier you’ve selected.

It begins with boarding. The scheduled departure is 5:00 p.m., and they’ve just started calling triple executive elite passengers at 4:45. You know this flight isn’t leaving at 5:00, but no one will tell you that. No sooner does the plane push back, you hear over the loudspeaker, “We’ve been put on hold. We’ll know something in an hour.” You think to yourself, “You didn’t know about this 10 minutes ago when I had CNN, food, water, and lots of bathrooms?”

In first class, you get free cocktails, odd considering restrooms are about to become more valuable per square foot than Beverly Hills. Free beverages make the impending problem worse. I’ve flown on enough airlines and experienced enough multihour delays to know the most likely outcome of such disruptions is finally getting to my destination, having a strong cocktail, and forgetting about it.

Instead of hoping customers would forget (or worse, not caring if they remember), JetBlue took a different approach. What makes JetBlue’s response different from any other airline’s is that founder and CEO David Neeleman started from the position of understanding what his customers had just been through, vowing to make a change. Maybe it was his experience at Southwest Airlines, or maybe he’s just a thoughtful leader. Either way, by immediately apologizing he signaled his airline wouldn’t count on customers having a drink and forgetting the experience.

Instead, Neeleman effectively said, “I know my customers are going to talk to each other about this.” He developed a customer’s bill of rights. Among its provisions: from this day forward when JetBlue delivers passengers on time, it earns whatever the full fare paid. When it delivers late, it earns something less.

Really telling is other airline execs’ reactions. Consider a JetBlue flight that had to stop en route so an ailing passenger could receive help. JetBlue’s President and COO David Barger apologized to each passenger for the delay, distributed his phone number, and told them to call his secretary to book a free flight. Another airline executive asked, “How can we compete with that?”

It’s a deep-seated conviction. According to Barger, “As president and chief operating officer, I lead JetBlue’s charge to bring humanity back to air travel and to establish JetBlue as a new standard in the airline industry for service, performance, and innovation.”

JetBlue gets the connected nature of customers and online social networks. How do I know? Although I wasn’t on the affected flights, I got an apology from Neeleman. He understands anyone enrolled in JetBlue’s TrueBlue program, not just the people directly affected by a specific event, has a stake in the brand. He’s talking with everyone who may be in a position to talk about, recommend, or comment on JetBlue. The airline enrolled its entire customer base in getting the message out about its Bill of Rights and what it means to JetBlue passengers.

Is a bill of rights just an act? In the early ’90s, I helped develop a governmental relations program for Progressive Insurance in Texas. One item I developed, in advance of any mandate, was a customer’s bill of rights. Think about the parallels between insurance and air travel: both are necessary, and both are fundamentally service businesses. As with the insurance carrier, the airline has, at first look, every incentive to minimize customer-service costs. Progressive recognized spending more on claim service would result in a decreased total claim cost. So we started looking at ways to tangibly improve the customer experience. Progressive’s Immediate Response claim service, 1-800-AUTO-PRO, competitive quote comparisons, and the Progressive Web site and the tools it offers consumers are all examples of a fundamental customer orientation. Since implementation, Progressive has risen from a small specialty carrier to a top auto insurer. Its stock price reflects this.

True to its charter, JetBlue is changing the customer experience in a meaningful way. Some experts discount a bill of rights. “It wouldn’t do a damn thing,” said Michael Boyd, an aviation consultant. “Operational problems are the root cause of monster delays, and legislation wouldn’t change that.”

As I’ve noted before, the link between operations and marketing is fundamental to brand building. JetBlue understands this. The JetBlue Web site features not only its new bill of rights, but also a feedback form so customers can comment on it. These comments will not doubt inform further development of the JetBlue Bill of Rights and the operation policies that support it.

Handing cash to customers is no way to run an airline. That customers are invited to directly comment online, something even Southwest doesn’t allow, again affirms JetBlue fundamentally gets the connected nature of its consumers and understands how to tap that and use it to effectively communicate with its customers and stakeholders.

By directly addressing the issue, by making the problem and the solution public, the online buzz around the bill of rights is significant. If nothing else, JetBlue’s intention to innovate and establish its commitment to consumers is widely noticed. The proof will be in the pudding, but at this point the ingredients look perfect. JetBlue is tapping the connectedness of its user base through a variety of means to help ensure its efforts toward positive change are noticed.

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