The airline industry is not exactly the first place you look for examples of great customer service.

People love to complain about their flights and of course, there are good reasons for their dissatisfaction. By now, we know them all — cramped seats, long lines, surly passengers, delays and annoying fees. I’m a frequent flier of American Airlines and I see all of this.

You can argue with me but all-in-all, I think American’s a pretty good airline. In just about every case, the company does what’s asked: it gets me to my destination, safely, pretty much on-time and in relative comfort. When flights are delayed or cancelled it’s usually not American’s fault. It’s more because of the weather, an unplanned logistical problem, airport congestion or mechanical issues. Of course, this doesn’t mean that American is perfect.

There are times when I get a little frustrated with the airline.

For example, there was the time when American held up my flight for an hour because the pilots were waiting for a fax – yes a fax – to complete their paperwork. There was another time when the gate crew were more interested in discussing their previous night out than informing waiting passengers of our delayed flight. There have been more than a few times where the in-flight systems weren’t working or the internet service was at a standstill, despite the thirty dollars I paid to be able to access the internet during my flight.

At these times, and in frustration, I turned to Twitter. I tweeted to @AmericanAir. And each time, a miracle occurred. They responded back. Quickly, within a few minutes.

The social media team @AmericanAir can’t get a plane to take off on time, or make my in-flight internet access connect. Their authority is limited. But they can provide information, forward my concerns, and  they can get me updates. And each time I’ve tweeted at them, they did. They would give me a status on my flight. They would confirm a problem and tell me what was being done. They would calm me down. Just by simply responding, by acknowledging my frustrations, by validating my concerns, the social media team performed a basic, yet critical part of every customer service operation: they listened and they empathized. They acknowledged my existence. They responded. And they did it in the moment. Always professional. Always upbeat.

American uses Twitter as a customer service tool and they use it well. They’re not afraid to be transparent. They understand that conversations about a flight or even a system wide problem are best done in a public forum so everyone can get the information they need to work around a problem. Sure, they frequently take individual customer concerns to direct message so that the rest of the world doesn’t have to listen in on a particular issue. Yes, they invite abuse and trolls. But that goes with the territory.

They understand that the world is watching and they embrace the public forum that is Twitter.

Twitter is not a marketing platform. It’s a communications platform. Of course it can be used to propagate information about your small business and advertise your products or services. But the smartest companies, like American, use the platform to engage and (most importantly) service their community. That’s what social media’s all about and people not only understand that, but appreciate it when a company understands that too.

Join writer and small business owner Gene Marks each Wednesday on the Small Biz Ahead podcast. You can also submit a question for Gene to answer on the podcast.

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