Looking for correlations between airline social customer service and growth.
The social media manager of an airline or airport has a challenging job dealing with complaints, bookings, questions about all and sundry … and emergencies.
It’s not a nine to five job – it’s a 24/7 task for a social media manager at airlines and airports. People have questions and need help anytime, anywhere. Including when stuck in elevators. When it comes to monitoring and responding, in some cases it’s a life-or-death situation. I hope, Amanda Carpenter survived the ordeal of waiting from Feb 14 until Sept 7 in an elevator at the airport before somebody on the social media team responded to her tweet.
Oh, and Ms. Carpenter is not just anyone – she is an accomplished CNN contributor. Not that this matters – regardless of who you are, if you need help you should get it while you are still breathing.
Knowing her to be a journalist, I seriously hope this was only a test to check the response time of @Amtrak – but you never know.
Airlines and airports – as well as many travel & leisure providers – are industries where a Twitter conversation is an important channel for customer interactions. So, in 2013 I wanted to find out how and if these industries had embraced this opportunity on improving customer satisfaction and grow their business despite a challenging market situation.
With the help of Datasift, we analyzed the response time on Twitter of 33 different airlines worldwide over a period of 30 days. At the time – 2013 – there were more than 100,000 tweets from customers mentioning the airline either directly or via hashtag. If ran today, the numbers would have multiplied.
CEOs want social media presence to influence buying decisions
At least that’s the prevalent argument. Social media was about sharing and engaging with family and friends – who in turn influence our buying decisions. This was the major argument in favour of companies investing in these channels. And 3 years later it’s still up there as one of the reasons CEOs invest.
So, I asked my family, friends and wider network eight short questions about whether they had ever tried to contact an airline via social media, whether the airline responded, and whether you were satisfied with the response – leading to a positive customer experience. And repeated this survey in 2016 to see if things had changed.
Turns out, they hadn’t. The sample is in no way stastistically significant with 35 responses then, and 46 responses this year. But what is interesting, is that things hadn’t really changed that much. The airlines who were most responsive in 2013, were still the best and most appreciated in 2016. And those who sucked… well, they still sucked. Except two: American Airlines and Lufthansa Group
It is often said that it is almost impossible to reverse a bad reputation, which United Airlines has felt ever since it lost the famous guitar. But it is possible to build a great reputation as American Airlines has done, and jump 33 points on the J.D. Powers customer satisfaction index for airline industries. Simply by focusing on social profiles and social interactions.
American Airlines started running regular workshops with their staff teaching all customer facing employees how to navigate in the social media space and to pick up trends and grumbles before they turn into storms. In 2013 they were rated below average – three years later they had climbed the ladder significantly.
Twitter – a marketing channel or a conversation?
This graph shows the response rate versus customer interactions for some of the airlines in the study. You will want to look for the white space – the gap between the organge response line and the yellow staples signifying number of customer mentions either directly via their Twitter profile or in hashtags. The whiter, the better.
Other than American Airlines, United and Delta, British Airlines stands out as being very non-responsive. In 2013, they “loved reading tweets” on their global Twitter account, but were only ”answering 09.00 – 17.00 GMT on weekdays.”
For my analysis, I picked those airlines respondents had mentioned. Lufthansa was among those who were very present on Twitter showing promotional images of their aircrafts engine power, happy pilots and stewardesses, and pictures of the clouds in the sky. But for customer service, in 2013 Lufthansa referred people to download a detailed form on their website, and fax (!) or email it to their customer service centres.
Air travel remains for many people an uncomfortable, disappointing and grumble-worthy experience. Things have changed both for Lufthansa Group, American Airlines, United Airlines, and to some extent British Airways. But the grumbling persists.
As with United Airlines and the lost guitar, the reputation of British Airways for non-supportive customer support remains a stigma. And the execution for both airlines appears still to be slightly lagging at least according to the 46 responses on my little survey.
Is there a correlation between focus on social customer service and growth?
Imagine if you could simply take these findings directly into the board room and demand more resources for your social customer service initiatives.
Unfortunately, it would require a lot more detail and a larger survey sample to draw any conclusions worthy of that, but the financial results before taxes and interest for some of the noteworthy airlines from the original study show some trends, especially if related to growth in passenger numbers.
KLM is famous for it’s pioneering efforts in engaging customers on Twitter with their many innovative ideas. But this analysis cannot illustrate the impact, if any, because they had since merged with Air France. But they are both on the top ten index of the world’s best airlines, so it can’t be all wrong. Similarly, Lufthansa Group now comprises Swiss who already then were performing well in the response rate plus acquired several more in the interim years.
We shouldn’t jump to conclusions. Even obvious correlations may be false friends.
In 2000 there were 327 deaths by people entangled in their bedsheets and per capita cheese consumption in the United States was 29.8lbs. This has grown to 717 deaths and 32.8lbs of cheese by 2009. A clear correlation over the years.
Enjoy more of these obvious and very funny correlations by Tylver Vigen here.
What I am trying to illustrate with the cheese in the bed sheets is that we cannot draw any conclusive data from the social media engagement rate and the financial results or passenger growth in the airline industry. There are too many additional data points that influence or need to be filtered out. It requires more computing power than I have available. But it would be an obvious task for some of the now very hot artificial intelligences being launched by many IT vendors. What if I could ask IBM’s cognitive intelligence Watson to do an analysis?
I did in fact ask Watson about something else – stay tuned for my next blog post on the Kobayashi Maru – or how I convinced Watson to change its impression of my Twitter personality. Take a look at @echrexperiment on Twitter to see how I did it.
So, is there a correlation between a company’s financial growth and turnover and how socially engaged they are in their customer service function?
The short answer is yes and no
Sorry, if this wasn’t helpful.
If you compare customer satisfaction index, the financial results before taxes and the passenger growth of these airlines in 2013 adding the filter of how they were rated in engagement on Twitter with their 2016 results and growth, all of them have grown. But not necessarily because of their satisfaction ratings or social media engagement, but due to other strategic measures such as mergers, geographic focus, improved fleet etc. The numbers provided in the below chart are based on the annual reports and official websites of each of the airlines comparing 2013 with 2015.
It can make all the difference in the world
On this chart one airline stands out with negative growth in passengers and the lowest financial growth 2013 – 2016 on results before taxes and interest. But it is also one of the most Social Airlines in terms of response rate.
Scandinavian Airlines Systems was facing bankruptcy in November 2012. Media reported hourly on the negotiations between trade unions and SAS leadership and executive board. They were trying to agree on terms that would make SAS more competitive and allow the airline to bring in more capital to avert the crisis.
Meanwhile, over the course of that week, travelers were deeply worried. But SAS had a social media strategy in place already. Following the infamous volcanic ash cloud closing down airspace in most of Europe in 2011, they had kicked off their social media channel with a focus on providing active assistance and service to their passengers.
During that dramatic week, one social media manager in particular – Cecilia Saberi – stood out with her calm and constructive responsiveness, her quiet charm with a twinkle in her eye. She worked day and night, slept on the sofa in the office for a few hours only to resume responding to concerned passengers, media and sensationalists. Her approach was sincere, open, genuine and fact-based. And she showed with every comment, every tweet, that people interact with people, not machines or corporations.
(Bård tweeted a link to a newspaper site: “SAS in collapse. SAS very close to bankruptcy.” Cecilia responded within minutes: “Hello Bård, we are flying as usual, but of course all these speculations in media create unnecessary uncertainty. Have a nice day! //Cecilia”)
SAS did not lose their passengers during that week as far as is known. Because business continued as usual in a very unusual situation. As is often the case, despite sensationalist media reports creating issues without proper attention to facts.
I repeat – Timing is everything
As you can see from the below Skytrax 2015 airline ratings, customer satisfaction does not necessarily lead to better financial results or more bookings.
But during a crisis, loyalty and genuine openness and care – including responding while the response is still helpful and not leaving a journalist in an elevator for 6 months – can make the impossible possible and turn around a potentially disastrous situation into even better experiences.
Cecilia no longer works for SAS – but how she interacted has become the style of the social media team and is well appreciated by the customers. The seats may be shaky, there is no silver ware in business class, but Scandinavians remain loyal a little longer while SAS gets itself sorted.