Airline misses connection on social media customer service

Earlier this month, I wrote about how social media listening provides organizations with an outstanding opportunity to gather customer feedback and address customer service issues. The airline industry is a leader in this field.

Though most major airlines have a robust social media monitoring and response program, a story written today by one of my favorite Wall Street Journal reporters/bloggers shows the significant diversity in the approaches they take.

For most airlines, the approach seems to be an extension of regular customer service. Tweet a complaint, and you’ll get a response that is consistent with the airline’s standard policy in that situation.

At least one airline, Delta, takes a different approach. According to this story, Delta’s social media strategy is like customer service on steroids. The folks who monitor social media chatter about the airline are empowered to bend rules and go beyond standard customer service protocols to make things right for customers.

This raises an interesting dilemma. On one hand, I am big fan of empowering front-line employees to use their discretion and immediately address customer service issues – a model made famous by the Ritz Carlton. And I’m an equally big fan of using social media for helping customers.

On the other, Delta’s approach creates a shameless double standard. Essentially, the message they’re sending is “if you have the power to make us look bad and cause a public relations nightmare, we’ll do something. Otherwise, tough noogies.”

The magic of the Ritz Carlton model is that it applies to all employees interacting with customers in all situations…not just those causing a scene in the hotel lobby.

Coincidentally, another report published today named Delta the meanest airline in America.

Look. I am not some naïve fool who thinks the world is filled with unicorns, rainbows and kittens. I know that the squeaky wheel gets the grease, and that people who have the power to influence the opinions of others get preferred treatment. I get it. I am, after all, a PR guy.

What I’m suggesting is that maybe Delta doesn’t “get it.” Social media is a feedback loop. If your customer service policies are so bad that the only way a person can seek redress of their grievance is through public shaming, it might be time to look at the rest of your operation.

I know it’s impossible for every front-line employee of a major corporation to flawlessly serve as a brand ambassador. I know you need scripts and policy manuals to ensure CSRs deliver consistent service and control costs.

But at the same time, you need to have a better escalation procedure for solving problems…and more important, that policy should be the same for all your customers, whether they are standing at a counter, talking on the phone, or tweeting to the world. Remember that integrity is doing the right thing even when nobody is looking.

Airlines, including Delta, should be commended for being innovators in embracing social media as a way to interact with their customers and solving problems. It’s a fantastic tool for building relationships and engaging in meaningful conversations. But that’s just the first step in the process.

Next, they need to take the information they gather through social media, and use it to improve the rest of their operation.

Then, then need to apply those same standards to all points of customer contact, not just the embarrassing ones, because any good PR person will tell you that double standards, hypocrisy and arbitrary policies look just as bad as (if not worse than) bad customer service.

In a world of social media, don’t you think somebody might notice that double standard? The Wall Street Journal did.