December 19, 2013

Airlines Can Stand Behind Their Brand by Having Their Customers’ Backs

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Written by: Phil Derner Jr.
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The recent merger of American Airlines and US Airways has brought about many discussions and fears of what it will mean to customers; talk of higher fares, fewer options and less of a need for customer service in an inching-toward-monopolized industry. I find solace in that the leading brand of the two airlines, American, has in recent history been showing their intent on being a customer service driven business, which I expect to carry over regardless of who they combine operations with (and that’s not a dig at US Airways).

flight_attendant_maleRegardless of that or any other merger, wherever customers have options to fly multiple carriers, their decisions will be customer service driven. Customer service does not just include the reactive environment of responding to customer complaints and problems, but also the environment in which an airline can cater to the wants and needs of those already within the flying experience…to actually serve their customers. The flying experience is a stressful one for many, or most, by default, and customers have no problem spending a few bucks more to receive certain comforts and amenities that make that journey a little easier. Maybe it’s leg room, maybe it’s wifi, maybe it is a snack or the cost of that checked bag or two, but whatever the craving, people will choose the airline that gives them the amenity they truly desire, which is peace of mind.

Notice how I have yet to say the word passengers. The word customer is the word that airlines, or any business, needs to remember about those that they serve, such as how if doctors viewed their patients as customers, they wouldn’t keep us waiting in that room for so long. But I digress. When dealing with such a massive potential audience for revenue, and when faced with formidable competition (though, granted, that is a major variable), airlines need to truly earn people’s business and maintain the relationship well beyond the point of sale.

One obvious way for an airline to embrace their customer base is to go to where many of them live…on the internet. Harnessing the internet is an amazing way for an airline (or again, any business) to show an interest in their customers. This doesn’t just mean having a website, but it means engaging your customers on social media, or taking responsibility in the environment where flight reviews, both customer and professional, drive decisions in the research phase of a sale. This “advice” about using the internet should be obvious, but several airlines still severely lack in this department today.

Online research as an “influencer” in making booking decisions is growing and growing, and it doesn’t just mean reading to find out if your seat reclines. People want to hear what others are feeling and experiencing, and reviews show that. Last year, American Airlines was one of many airlines that gave NYCAviation a free trip for us to review their product. They knew that what we experienced and wrote about afterward would appear in search engines and would be a source for people making purchasing decisions, so they set out to allow us to play a role in that instead of just sitting back and hoping for the best.

We did not hold back at all when some of the flight turned out to be less than expected, and we published a fair but honest review accordingly. American saw this, and they stood behind their brand by being accountable, and giving us another flight with which to give them another chance. They performed wonderfully the second time around, and it was not just special treatment because of who we are. They treated everyone within eyesight as good, respected, valued customers. American stood behind their brand, talked the talk and walked the walk. Fist bump. Respect. Booyahkasha.

hasan-syedThe big opportunity to measure an airline’s customer engagement lies in social media, namely Twitter from/for my perspective. The internet is a longstanding soundboard for the regular person to be heard by many if the timing is right, and airlines can either address and work with this, or let it become an ocean of complaint, thus creating a maelstrom of bad reputation.

Want to know which airlines properly utilize social media? Make a list of 10 airlines in the US and do a search for them on Twitter. Scroll down to read even just 3 hours of tweets from the public and you will see not only a cross section of their social media engagement, but how their customers view them as a whole.

When it comes to airlines on Twitter, engagement and activity is owned by JetBlue and American. Post something good or bad about either (vulgarities and such notwithstanding) and you will likely get a response from them. Delta and Southwest hold strong as well, and United, who has often been especially lacking in this area, is now becoming a player. But you don’t have to take my word for it (h/t Levar Burton). Go read the Twitter feeds yourself and tell me what you think. It will be very obvious which airlines have a customer base, or a fan base.

Even without the airline’s responding to those tweets, you will see what people think about those carriers. I like to do the “cuss tally.” Which airlines are people cursing at the most? What airlines have made their customers so enraged that they have no problem cursing them out in the very public and permanent venue that is the internet? It may sound silly, but that tally has a great effect on how I view airlines.

It’s no coincidence that the airlines that tend to have fewer overall complaints are the same ones that have high Twitter engagement. Though addressing people’s concerns and being accountable for your missteps goes a long way in convincing customers to fly with you again, this does not mean that engaging on social media will end complaints or suddenly make people like you. Instead, it is reflective of the overall customer service mindset of a company which, again, cares about the people shelling out bucks to fly them. Engaging them puts the airline in control and shows that they care. The rest will all come full circle.

Call it an example of growing egotism in society, but I feel that my money holds a higher value than just the gold, silver, and other shiny metals that it represents in the Federal Reserve. Me handing over my money to a business signifies a vote of trust for them in the service they provide, and my expectation of respect from them as a customer. When you reward a company that has previously wronged you and has made no effort to earn back your business, you’ve been fooled twice, and you know the rest of that phrase.

Phil Derner founded NYCAviation in 2003. A lifetime aviation enthusiast that grew up across the water from La Guardia Airport, Phil has a background in online advertising and airline experience as a Loadmaster, Operations Controller and Flight Dispatcher. You can reach him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @PhilDernerJr.

About the Author

Phil Derner Jr.
Phil Derner founded NYCAviation in 2003. A lifetime aviation enthusiast that grew up across the water from La Guardia Airport, Phil has aviation experience as a Loadmaster, Operations Controller and Flight Dispatcher. He owns and operates NYCAviation and performs duties as an aviation expert through writing, consulting, public speaking and media appearances. You can reach him by email or follow him on Twitter.



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