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.

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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

 

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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 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.

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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.

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(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.

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Creating your own pathways through the cloud

Companies like Microsoft have many types of customers, but by embracing cloud they have multiplied their impact on IT’s everyday dilemma – the rogue customer.

Meet the customer where the customer is – a truism pervasive to sales and marketing speak over the past few years – is now also the overall motto where IT meets business.

James Staten, Chief Strategist Cloud and Enterprise at Microsoft, spent a few days in Stockholm at IP Expo Nordic  and a few minutes with me on the balcony overlooking the trade show floor. Just off the stage speaking about the end of the era of IaaS we were looking at the specifics behind his statement:

“Hybrid Cloud is the future and Microsoft will continue to invest in the dynamic interchange and complexity of public cloud and on premise computing.”

The Microsoft Cloud offers customers a global infrastructure with 30 available, and 36 announced, datacenter regions. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella just confirmed this commitment on Oct 3, 2016 by adding several European countries to the list of countries hosting or acting as hubs for their datacentres. And by introducing a novel concept where access to customer data is controlled locally through a trustee – T-Systems International in Germany. Thus addressing the continuous resistence to placing and handling data outside of your jurisdiction which is particularly fierce in Germany.

The dilemma of empowerment and control

In 2010 we could still put everything into boxes and linear progression charts

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This linear layered view of computing vs cloud as illustrated by industry expert R Wang in 2010 was a nice illustration of where the -as-a-Service had disrupted traditional IT – but this no longer applies: It is being disrupted by the citizens=users themselves.

“Just about 15% of the world’s developers have the highest level of skills required to build advanced and full scale deployments on Iaas (Infrastructure-as-a-Service) but there are 10 times as many developers who have excellent basic coding skills in various languages who are creating business value for the enterprise,” James Staten explains. “If you then consider that there are 80 times as many people in the world who can code and deploy to a selected cloud platform, there is a nightmare scenario out there from the IT Operations perspective which can inhibit innovation and growth.”

James Staten is a visionary. As a former Gartner and Forrester Analyst   and ex-CMO he is an expert at connecting the dots and creating a cohesive narrative.

To understand the reason why Microsoft believes in the hybrid cloud and is leaving the focus on -aaS combinations, you need to understand who your customers are and under which assumptions they operate.

 

Historically, IT called the shots when business needs were met in the enterprise. And even structure lovers like myself, can see that what the architecture of today’s large enterprises mostly resembles is a maze. But with today’s tools at their fingertips, customers want to do their own thing. And the challenge is on the IT management to keep it safe and secure despite everyone going rogue on them.

When basically everyone can or can learn to code, or at least subscribe to cloud based business process applications they could deploy themselves, the infrastructure has been disrupted by user behaviour. Just like a path created by people simply trying to find an easier way.

James Staten feels that if you support the developers by providing them with the tools they feel comfortable with as they navigate safely in the Cloud, you are also helping IT to stay in control of their infrastructure and protect their investement in existing platforms and processes. This is where among others the Microsoft Azure Security Center wants to help  IT managers sleep at night.

If we want to achieve true developer empowerment in this next generation of cloud, we have to encourage more coders to be productive with their existing skills. We can do this by letting them program with the languages they want to use — and are most appropriate to the type of app they are building — giving them reliable and consistent access to as broad a set of services as possible, and doing this in such a way that leverages open source and open standards. You want their processes to be painless and intuitive to encourage productivity and be applicable across the needs and services that your business operates and leverage where your customers are when they want you there. (Source: Geek.ly “Cloud Empowerment should not stop at highly skilled developers” by James Staten)

Star struck

When you meet people like that, who have visions that reach beyond and above, you should always remember that they are people who want to make the world a better place – in this case, James Staten even held my phone when we took the img_0928traditional SpeakerSelfie – and I am still slightly shaken by the encounter.

Hope to meet again soon at another conference somewhere in the universe to continue our conversation.

 

 

 

 

 

Oh, and if you would like to see what a rogue customer can look like, here’s one. (Photo courtesy of Miroslav Trzil)

< Disclaimer> Image has no connection to the interview topic or person interviewed.

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When disruption becomes tangible – stories from a train station. Europe September 2015.

This blog is about digital disruption.  A disruption  is a major disturbance, something that changes your plans or interrupts some event or process.

Right now, our comfortable reality is being disrupted – brutally, dramatically. This blog entry is not what I normally write about, but it is important. Here are some destinies from Stockholm Central Station.

My respect for the personal integrity of these refugees arriving to train stations across Europe, struggling to find a way to continue their journey, stopped me from bringing out the camera despite those countless moments that would have been powerful images.

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They say, a picture can say more than a thousand words.

I have no pictures for this story, so I will paint them with my words.

Picture No. 1

Remarkably, hundreds of refugees pass us during our day at the station, but nearly the only littering/garbage left behind are some cigarette stubs, probably from the local people as they light up leaving the station rushing towards their lives.

The transport coordinators (and I, one of the drivers) are standing with our fluorescent vests next to a lamp pole outside Stockholm Central Station. There is a box behind us with some notes and pens. A little girl – 5-6 years old – points at the box. We smile. She walks up to it and looks to us for confirmation, then drops the peel of the pineapple slice she had received in the food tent into the box. She has been brought up to understand that she is our guest, and she does not want to litter.

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Picture No. 2

A determined red haired volunteer muscles her way through the crowds to our lamp post. She wants help for her group, the people she had welcomed on the platform as she could speak their native tongue. There is a boy, with one eye blinded, protruding slightly. A father, 2 more children, a mother, an uncle. The boy’s eye hurts terribly, the redhead wants to find a doctor. We ask her to go to the Red Cross station.

– “No, they said they don’t have a doctor – they said I should ask you, the people with the vests”. We, the volunteers, can organize a car to the hospital but the redhead throws her arms in the air: “They have no time, they finally got train tickets to the North and the train leaves in 3 hours”.

So I take off my vest and go into action mode: “I will take them, I will explain the urgency and get him back in time. I have had my 1-on-1’s with hospitals before.” She explains, they discuss, the mother cries, and the father and uncle take my hand. Please. Yes. The boy looks at me and smiles with his good eye.

This is Sweden. At the hospital we get speeded through. The receptionist calls a friend who works in administration, he speaks Arabic. Their story unfolds as he explains to the doctor what has happened:

Abu Bakr – 10 years old, from Bagdad. His home was bombed, his eye damaged by splintering glass. In Irak, they had tried to treat him, but the medicine they carried had been contaminated. On the fragile rubber boat – in the Mediterranean – when they tried to start the outboard engine, he got an elbow thrust into the eye, and gasoline as well. That’s when it got really bad. Only in Sweden did they find the courage to ask for help. During their exodus they were afraid they might be detained.

The doctor investigates, prepares the prescriptions to take on their onwards journey and sends us to the local pharmacy. I had not really donated money yet, and I do not mind paying for the medication to last the boy for 2 months. With my credit card ready, the pharmacist says: “He is a refugee with no home and no formal identity papers. Regardless of the real price, all the medication is 50 Kroner.” That’s less than 10 Dollars. This is Sweden – and I will pay my taxes with enthusiasm now and in the future.

Abu Bakr is smiling with his good eye. And he takes 1 Kroner (1.2 cents) out of his pocket and puts it on the desk for the doctor. He wants to pay for himself.

Picture No. 3

The Red Cross teams inside the train station are overwhelmed. A group of people with crying/screaming children crowd the interpreter and a few RC volunteers. They have no onwards ticket, they have no place to stay, their children are hungry. And a little boy runs around with his pacifier in his mouth, and one arm hanging limply in an odd angle from his petite frame. The transport coordinator asks me – You are good with hospitals, can you take the boy to the ER?

Zain is 3 years old. His sister Rawan is 4. Their father is alone, there is no mother and I do not know what happened to her. I also do not ask. Upon boarding the train in Vienna the little boy tripped and fractured his shoulder. He is so small, I would have taken him for 8-10 months, had it not been for his knowing eyes. They asked for help in Vienna, but they said not to worry, no need for X-ray, just board the train.

The local café offers the children food – the father insists on paying. He wants them to eat before we leave, because who knows when they will next get some food. I cannot explain, I am helpless without speaking Arabic. He pulls out a 5 EURO note to give the café, they refuse. He points at the Money Exchange office, wants me to watch the children. He wants to pay. I offer to exchange his money – and he gets a good rate. I give him 500 Swedish Kroner, t’s the only banknote in my purse, and he ceremoniously hands over his 5 EURO note.

At the Astrid Lindgren Children’s Hospital in Stockholm, we wait. The nurse is certain it is broken, but timing is bad – it’s shift change hour and the doctors are in conference. The father had traveled with a group, but he is now afraid that his little family will be left behind. It will be hard for him with two very small children, and nobody to help him watch them. He already looks like he has not slept in a week. And he is badly malnourished. While we wait, the waiting room fills with other children – a small 2 year old waddles over and starts to play with little Zain. Zain is confused, then smiles and responds. They exchange books, move furniture and show each other the little box of juice they were given. Look what I have – I have one too.

The transport coordinator calls me from the station – the other group will leave on the train at 5 pm without Zain, Rawan and their father. They finally secured tickets and they have to look out for themselves. But I feel safe – this is Sweden. The father will not have to stand guard tonight over his few posessions and his little children with no mother. The volunteers at the Red Cross shelter will make sure he gets a good night’s sleep.

Before I hand them back to the Red Cross, I buy pacifiers for each of the children. They only had one each, and each time they dropped it the father had panicked. The little girl – Rawan – chooses two pretty little pink ones, and proudly shows them to all the Red Cross volunteers. As I leave, Zain has fallen asleep on his father’s shoulder wrapped in my jacket. I leave it. I ask the interpreter to say these words to him for good bye: “Thank you – it was an honour for me to be allowed to help you today.” The father nods, he holds my hand, but his grip is weak. He has no response. His too tired to form any words. And he is alone.

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