On February 14th, Kevin Smith was boarded onto a Southwest Airlines flight only to be disembarked shortly afterwards because staff felt that that they couldn’t justify carrying somebody of such ample girth on a full flight. Flight attendants claimed his large size would impede on the comfort of other passengers, and they deemed him to be a “safety risk”.
Smith later flew into Oakland on another SouthWest flight despite his adverse experience earlier that evening. He received a $100 voucher for his trouble and was the recipient of a few apology tweets from the airline – but based on the creative use of profanity on his Twitter page, it was clear that the apologies didn’t quite work as the airline had hoped. Read an account of the KS/SWA twitter conversation on Google here.
The incident highlights a number of issues:
- The communication reflects the potential paradigm shift in the way airlines are beginning to communicate with their customers (or at least the important ones).
- The incident reinforces the benefits and dangers of social media in the airlines/travel industry.
- The disembarkation reignites the long running debate on whether overweight passengers should purchase additional seating to facilitate their wide load.
- It demonstrates the importance of an airline (or any company) to have a real interactive blog. Twitter is isolation of other media just doesn’t work.
Kevin Smith isn’t any “ordinary” passenger. He’s an actor, writer, director and producer – and he has a Twitter following of over 1.6 million people. The damage (and good) Kevin can potentially cause a brand is quite extraordinary; not only because so many people listen to him, but because he has worked so hard at creating a personal bond with his followers that they may also share his frustration on a more personal level (through a social phenomena known as emotional transference). When Smith tweeted his unfavorable experience, 1.6 million people heard him.
Twitter is very celebrity-focused. Given the extraordinary number of passengers that airlines carry, it’s highly likely that the only people who have any serious influence over the medium at this stage are those with large follower numbers, and it’s just as likely that an airline will only give serious attention to those that can do the most damage… “the exposure to the many outweighs the exposure to a few”. I follow a number of airlines on Twitter and I’m always more interested in what airlines are saying to the average person rather than what they’re saying about themselves – and I’m far less interested with what they’re saying to celebrities and twitter power users. The majority of airline responses that are directed at disgruntled or enquiring passengers simply refers them to a ‘customer grievance’ or ‘contact’ webpage, assuming they get any kind of response at all… yet Kevin Smith got VIP treatment.
The disturbing trend of “selective customer service” that I’ve continued to observe isn’t reserved to just twitter. The utilitarian social attitude of airlines is demonstrated by a disproportionately larger number of responses from all their media platforms directed at users that can illicit the greatest benefit or do the most damage to their brand. If damage control is the primary reason the medium is being used then it’s becoming (or remaining as) more a public relations (“building customers”) tool instead of a customer service one (“building relationships”) – the latter being the primary reason that a customer will socially engage with an airline. There’s certainly no harm if PR is their intended usage or primary focus, but it’s often the expectation of a pinging customer that matters most. If you fail to respond to a customer expectation in a manner that a user expects – it will damage your brand. For this reason, airlines should make it abundantly clear in their Twitter profile that the service is not used for grievances, and they should provide a direct link to more formal means of contact.
Despite what many claim, the use of Twitter and other such social services in the airline environment (at this point in time) is extremely limited from a customer perspective. What good can a bunch of PR people really do other than manage their public relations? They’ll refer high risk tweets to customer service (or higher in the case of Smith), but the majority of complaints or enquires will be palmed off to a traditional web based contact service in 140 characters or less – if at all. A single tweet by an airline directing users elsewhere is generally all that any user can reasonably expect, and probably all the airline PR people are capable of. When an airline engages in true dialogue on the Twitter battlefield they’re generally doing so for the single purpose of PR or damage control; essentially using Twitter for what it’s (arguably) best for – marketing.
In spite of what many other bloggers are suggesting, I don’t think that an unreliable and quality-uncontrolled medium like Twitter is ready to be used as an airline customer service platform. However, there’s no reason why Twitter and other similar services can’t be fully integrated into an existing customer management platform, effectively making Twitter a conduit for purpose built software that would enable support staff to manage complex enquiries, grievances and questions via more formal means. We’ve just built proof-of-concept software that will direct tweets with a specific #hash tag (from registered users) into a quality controlled open source trouble ticket system. Updates and information could then be sent publicly, by direct messages, or via email in response – and the enquiry and history remains logged as a traditional ticket for true auditing. The actual management of the enquiry remains a function of the CMS/ticket system and all enquires are handled in a quality controlled manner that airlines require.
Any large business is going to struggle with Twitter integration, and managing the multiple streams of information from its customer base into a single repository is a never ending struggle. Small business, particularly those without formal support software – more notably smaller general aviation carriers and flying schools – can probably still get away with using Twitter as a standalone tool, and it probably remains an extremely plausible and effective means of engaging its customers – despite the fact that it wouldn’t withstand quality assurance scrutiny. People buy from people, and that personal contact that small businesses are capable of gives your brand a voice. However, just because the service can be used in a particular way, doesn’t mean that it should be.
A shortcoming of twitter is the transient nature of the twitter timeline and the relatively small number of people that actively use it. A twitter message can quickly ‘timeout’ – so it’s to SouthWest Airlines’ credit that they continued the Kevin Smith debate in the very public, permanent and accountable blogosphere. They responded to the concerns of their customers with the blog, “Not So Silent Bob“, and then followed up the following day with “My Conversation with Kevin Smith“. Shortly after SouthWest published their second blog, Kevin published his own response entitled “Running out of gas on this subject” – clearly fed up with the attention his obesity had attracted. Regardless of whether the decision of SouthWest flight attendants to offload Smith was right or wrong, the blog was a good example of how the medium could be used to speak (and directly listen) to their wider audience.
Southwest took a further blow when Kevin Smith broadcast a Smodcast podcast detailing the events of the evening. Given Smith’s arsenal of media platforms to belittle the airline it’s no wonder they took his complaints seriously! Listen to it below.
The nature of overweight passengers is probably best left for another post.