Social CRM Helps Airlines Weather Winter Storms

The wintry weather across the nation is showcasing that perhaps no sector has had to learn more about social CRM on the fly than the airlines industry. What happens when a storm hits a region and the customer service phone lines jam up for Delta, United, Southwest, and other airlines? Customers log onto Facebook and Twitter and demand answers about their flight reservations and rebookings.

Due to severe snow and ice storms, visitors to the airlines’ Facebook pages and Twitter accounts saw social CRM in action this week. And similar to how customer-agent discussions can turn heated on the phone or at terminals, conversations via those sites can challenge customer service reps.

Susan Elliott, spokesperson for Atlanta-based Delta Airlines, told ClickZ that her brand employs a team of nine agents on Twitter to handle customers looking for help. Delta tested a pilot program on the micro-blogging site late in 2009 that “lasted all of two weeks,” she said, before launching it full-blown because of its CRM value.

“It can serve as a safety valve for a number of customers,” Elliott said. “It’s social media. We are learning something new every day. This particular type of customer service channel is unique, and we don’t have all the answers. We just continue to work, and the social consumer community will help us ultimately shape what this tool looks like.”

Social Turbulence: Customers Use Facebook And Twitter to Air Complaints

deltaOn Jan. 19, one Delta customer, Douglas Meyer, used Facebook to express his displeasure after being turned away at LaGuardia Airport in New York City because the airline said his passport was damaged. After discussions with Delta’s airport agent didn’t result in boarding the flight, Meyer posted a picture (left) on the social site while still at the airport to further state his case. He was scheduled to fly to Nicaragua with his girlfriend. But in the end, she had to take the trip without him.

Two weeks later, Meyer said the situation was still unresolved despite discussing it with Delta over the phone and via e-mail. He has asked the airline for his money back.

“I’d accept a refund but not a voucher – never flying Delta again,” he told ClickZ. “I just booked a flight with JetBlue.”

Illustrating how unhappy customers can attempt to taint a brand though social media, Meyer posted last week on Delta’s Facebook page a heart symbol next to the word “JetBlue.” And below that post, he authored the following message: “Despite delta’s Q4 profit, I see their customer experience reflecting poorly on the airline in the near future. worst customer service on earth. purely profit driven, zero ethical standards.”

But Delta, of course, is not the only airline experiencing a bumpy ride on social channels.

Here is a post by United Airlines on Facebook yesterday around 5 p.m. EST: “To everyone who has been affected by the Midwest and Northeastern storms, we thank you for your patience. Updates can be found at – stay warm!”

There were numerous harsh responses. An example: “Had an award ticket gone to hell due to the cancellations. Between UA, CO and OZ all three gave me the shaft w/ respect to options. Just proves that *A awards are so fragile they are almost useless.”

In the same Facebook thread, there were highlights for United. Here’s one: “Thank goodness for the new partnership with continental or I’d be stuck in texas.”

Southwest’s Facebook page also had a slew of positive and negative comments yesterday, with this mixed-bag flying free: “There is a nationwide emergency! Thousands of travelers are stranded all over the country. You would rather backlog Indy than fly us to Louisville with no fare increase. We have had 3 flights cancelled due to weather. We just want to get home to our families, homes, & jobs. Thanks for standing behind your customers.”

Delta Says Twitter Commitment Is Paying Off

Indeed, the diverse levels of social media turbulence currently endured by airline brands is intriguing. On Facebook, it’s particularly interesting because both positive and negative commenters are from “likes.”

Additionally, social CRM poses new questions for brands. For instance, what’s the best way to sync up Facebook and Twitter initiatives? And, should firms recruit and hire social media-savvy people from outside the company, or ask their telephone reps – already doing live chat and e-mail in many cases – to learn Facebook and Twitter CRM, too?

Elliott of Delta said her company has trained telephone agents to take the social media reigns. “The people working it have customer service experience,” she said. “That is a little harder to train. It’s easier to teach them how to use Twitter.”

The airline has a dedicated customer service account, @DeltaAssist, which is never used for promotions. It has 14,500 followers.

Meyer, the angered Delta customer, is not one of them. While posting on Delta’s Facebook page two weeks ago at LaGuardia Airport, he was instructed by the airline’s social rep that its @DeltaAssist team could more ably benefit his cause. However, he didn’t have a Twitter account and chose not to start one.

Meyer said he was not impressed by being asked to continue the conversation on a medium he didn’t use.

ClickZ’s own executive editor, Anna Maria Virzi, received a prompt respsonse from Delta’s Twitter team earlier this week while traveling to New York after attending the Email Evolution Conference in Miami. Virzi tweeted @DeltaAssist just before 7 a.m. on Jan. 31, and a Delta rep replied within 15 minutes.

Their exchange:

hi @delta: have you issued a travel advisory for Feb. 1 in the Northeast?

@AnnaMariaVirzi As of now no bulletin has been released. For the latest weather advisory flt status see link:

Elliott of Delta suggested that the key to orchestrating this style of social CRM was an ongoing commitment to its channels. “We’ve increased the hours and the number of agents we have on Twitter,” she said. “It’s become very popular with our customers.”

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