Timing is everything – and loyalty is earned

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.

Just testing

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.

tweetsairlines

 

 

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

 

guitar

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.

detailtweetsairlines

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.”

BA2013.png

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.

ba2016

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.

cheesandbedsheets

 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.

financeairlines

 

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.

CeciliaTweet.png

(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.

customersatskytrax

 

The “ambassadorization” of business

Human civilization emerged from tribes – as individuals the early humans would not have survived. The same applies today . No one can survive in a silo, be it a company, an industry, an organization or a department.

Once you realize that, you understand the power of relationships as the foundation of successfully connecting your needs to those of others upon who you are depending. That is why the current mantra in modern marketing is engagement. Every process, every action, every transaction is connected. If you push, someone or something has to move backwards. If you pull, someone or something is moving towards you. Pushing and pulling at the same time creates engagement. When you engage your audience, your partners or your employees, you create a tribe.

ArntEriksen (2) Speed

At the Speed of Change event in Oslo on April 16, 2015 (organized by Salesforce), trendspotter Arnt Eriksen focused on the power of tribes that develop into movements which ultimately could change the world. You could claim that the Arab Spring – using Facebook as it’s vehicle – started as a tribe and ended as a movement. Similary, Apple started building a tribe, a community of followers who wanted to think differently about computing. And ended up changing the world by engaging with them, changing them into devoted followers (tribes) and making them it’s strongest, devoted and forgiving ambassadors.

Artistic         Collage

(Artist: Maja Eriksson)                                   (Artist: Maja Eriksson)

When you have a purpose that can unite your tribe – such as the Arab Spring – and you have the vehicle to engage with each other – such as Facebook or other social channels – you can become successful as a business in the digital age.

“Convert strangers into customers – and nurture them into ambassadors” (Arnt Eriksen)

Share and Grow – sincere, open, likeable Swedish innovators – you will be sorry you missed it

Conferences, seminars, trade shows, events – the hype this spring are Social Media events. Most of these are focused on understanding social and what it can do for business, still making the point that it really is good for business. But it is – so why do we keep arguing that point?

There is the travelling road show of SMW – Social Media Week which hit the Nordics last week – and then there is SSMX.

SSMX grupp

It’s different. It’s owned by the delegates and it’s as flexible and unpredictable as a friendly amoebae – constantly evolving. These people – and the rest of us – are here growing as a professional, growing our business, growing our influence by sharing what we do with others. Very social.

Sincere – Open – Collaborative – Interested – Authentic – Likeable

Sessions vary from a heavy focus on technical innovation to practical examples to workshops where we sit in a circle and discuss and challenge each other. All sessions are initiated and run by the delegates themselves. Many of them filmed on the spot to share with those not there – take a look at some of them, you will be inspired.

http://video.ssmx.se/

Disruptive Leadership

It’s a myth that the social innovator scene is dominated by young geeks and nerds. I attended a session at SSMX with @johanlange who wrote the book LUCKc taking lean one step further. Once again, one session evolves into a continued exchange, and I will now attend his follow up breakfast sessions in Stockholm discussing out of the box leadership.

Changing the outcome – through Twitter

It’s a myth that social enthusiasts are techies only. I attended a session with @johansbuzz showing just how significant the social presence is in times of crisis by example of the labour union’s perspective of the negotiations with the employees last fall that led to the agreement that kept Scandinavian Airlines flying – at a time where the ultimate worst case was bankruptcy. If you understand Swedish, there is a recording of the session

http://unionenopinion.se/2013/02/unionen-delade-med-sig-pa-ssmx/

Social Customer Service – #UnitedBreaksGuitars

We had an interactive session discussing social customer service by example of airlines. 40 people in the room contacted airlines via three different channels

  1. Twitter
  2. Facebook
  3. Contact Me Forms – Email

Before the session Datasift.com  had analysed 100,000 tweets to/from 33 different airlines to check how responsive they were.

The same winner emerged during the experiment: it took KLM 28 minutes to respond with a qualified/useful answer to the Facebook post. (More on this study and results/experiment in an upcoming blog. Lots of data to analyse.)

What is SSMX – and these unconferences – and how to fertilize innovation?

Try googling SSMX or look it up on Twitter #SSMX (once you learn to ignore a less favourable ongoing Twitter conversation in Japan which had a completely different, and definitely not business facing use of the tag).

Karin Bäcklund SSMX 2013

People share pictures – don’t we all. Here are some nice ones that are truly artistic by @deeped

But they share content, reflections, discussions, presentations, feedback, research and already now feel inspired thinking about how to contribute to the next major sharing event in this community. There are similar unconferences happening across the Nordics, as an example the WebCoast

https://www.facebook.com/webcoast

… in Gothenburg taking the conference out into the region.

Sweden is a big  country with long distances to travel, and not everything happens in Stockholm. Another not to be missed social innovation event is happening over a weekend on an island off the southeast coast called Tjärö. Bring your tent, and beware of the sheep

http://www.swedensocialwebcamp.com/

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