Airlines Continue to Struggle with Customer Relations

Virgin America AirlinerI’ve blogged before on commercial airlines and their penchant for treating customers in a careless fashion. Everyone understands that the air travel industry is a challenging business – and a far cry from the halcyon days of yesteryear when traveling by air was an enjoyably memorable experience. Sure, tickets were pricey. But crowds were few, the atmosphere pleasant, and people felt pampered and special.

Now, commercial airline travel is more like a trip on an overcrowded city bus or, worse yet, being in the middle of a cattle call.

On top of this, it seems that airlines are their own worst enemies when it comes to customer service.

Take Virgin America, for example. It’s only the most recent example of airline customer relations that are essentially in the toilet. Recently when the airline changed over to the Sabre reservation system – no doubt to save money as much as for any reasons pertaining to improved operational accuracy – it did so in a way that left consumer satisfaction completely out of the mix.

When the switch was flipped over to the new Sabre system, many customers couldn’t access the website … and many of those who did were provided wrong boarding passes or other inaccurate information.

Even the airline’s own crew members were given incorrect information about when to show up for work.

Billing procedures? They were equally compromised. Some customers found themselves being invoiced multiple times for the same flight; the most egregious example was one woman who ended up with nine separate charges for the same flight.

The phone system was totally overwhelmed, as would be understandable. With the crush of customers attempting to call the airline to work out scheduling snafus, people found themselves being placed on hold for hours at a time – then mysteriously cut off.

Wouldn’t interfacing with customers be a situation tailor-made for harnessing the power of social media? In the abstract, yes. But in the case of Virgin America, they bombed on this score as badly as everything else.

To begin with, the company’s PR posture was that customers were experiencing only minimal problems with a “smooth transition” to the Sabre reservation system. But consumers were telling a completely different story on Twitter and Facebook.

When things like this occur, smart companies monitor social media platforms diligently and jump in to respond to individual and group concerns immediately. They understand that a disgruntled customer can be turned into a brand evangelist if “service recovery” is done effectively.

Doing this well means two fundamental things:

 Validating customers’ concerns by acknowledging that the problem exists, and taking responsibility.

 Providing real relief. Refunds, discounts, rewards, additional air miles – it’s all part of the arsenal of offerings that Virgin America could use to “turn lemons into lemonade.”

It’s wise to take social media seriously. That means assigning people with brains and a sincere interest in customer care to take charge of social media, and also giving them the authority to respond with honesty, integrity and empathy.

From the looks of things, it appears Virgin America did it all wrong. It quickly became apparent that the true details of the Sabre conversion were at major odds with the “happy face” posture and the company’s claims.

But what happened to customers who voiced their real concerns via social media? They found their posts being deleted. Failing to address customer complaints, while dissing them by kicking them off your Facebook page: How is that a recipe for success?

Consumer research tells us again and again that when companies lose customers, it’s because of what happens “on the ground.” Like Virgin American, they may spend millions on advertising, but those ad dollars are often better spent to improve customers’ personal experience.

Satmetrix, a San Mateo, CA customer experience research and software company, found recently that consumers stop doing business with a company for a variety of reasons … but product or service quality concerns represent a distinct minority of the cases:

 Rudeness or dishonesty: ~34% cited for stopping relationship
 Unexpected charges or fees: ~20%
 Product or service quality: ~20%
 Unfavorable return or refund policies: ~3%

But back to Virgin American. When the airline was first announcing its shift to the Sabre reservation system, it came up with a catchy, irreverent tagline: We’re shaping up our back end. How ironic does that all-too-cute messaging sound now?

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