Screw up? Beware of social networking! | Travel Research Online


Screw up? Beware of social networking!

Did you hear the one about the fat guy who was thrown off a plane? Sort of sounds like the opening of a joke doesn’t it? Well, it isn’t and right now Southwest Airlines is dealing with a public relations backlash because the passenger took to social networking to air his grievances. Here is how it all began:

Dear @SouthwestAir – I know I’m fat, but was Captain Leysath really justified in throwing me off a flight for which I was already seated?

Within minutes of tweeting, the Internet was buzzing. And also within minutes, Southwest was in full blown spin control.  Can it happen to you? Absolutely!

While social networking is a tremendous tool for travel professionals, we need to be reminded that it is a very sharp double edged sword. Several weeks ago, my 15-year old daughter ordered a dress from a well known store. She paid an additional $20 for overnight shipping, and it arrived by ground. I called the company’s customer service number and asked for a refund between the overnight and ground shipping and was told that since it did arrive the next business day, I was not entitled. I called the headquarters and left a voicemail in some Vice president’s mailbox. I sent an email to the same VP. I was not asking for a complete refund, just $15—the difference between the two shipping prices. After a week passed and there was no response, I put the take out on my Twitter feed and also posted it to my Facebook page, being sure to tag the company (making the message show up on their page for their fans to see). Within a few hours, I had a post to my wall, and a direct message to my Twitter account letting me know that someone would be in touch with me the following morning. The next morning, I received a call from the Administrative Assistant to the CEO with an apology and a promise that the shipping and the dress would be refunded. I explained that I was not looking for that and only wanted the difference in the shipping. She refused my offer of fairness and credited the entire transaction. This company went above and beyond; but it really illustrates the power of social media. When I looked, my tweet had been re-tweeted just under 5,000 times. Their Facebook page has over 75,000 fans. How much did that $10 bait and switch truly cost them? It is hard to measure. If you want to know the store, you are out of luck—they handled the problem and have regained my confidence.

Just this week, an agent in the TRO Community was lamenting that due to an error on her part, several members of a small family group would be flying home from a cruise separately. The agent did not purchase an air deviation for the clients and made the assumption that all would be accommodated on the same flights. It is a reasonable assumption, and at one point in time, most agents have made that mistake. But on the client side, the assumption is equally valid. The really unfortunate part is that travel is imminent and to make the change now would cost an additional $750. With cruise commissions as they are, this is a huge chunk (although not the entire amount) of any profit the agency would have made on the sale. Apparently, the clients were somewhat demanding and repeat business is questionable. So what is the best way to handle this? My recommendation was to eat the $750 (write it off to “training expenses”) and be happy with the morsels left. This will make the client happy and you might have a salvageable relationship. Passing the additional cost onto the clients will only exacerbate the situation. And in this day of social networking, you have no way of measuring the damage that can be done. There is an old axiom; if you do a good job, your client will tell someone. If you do a crappy job, they will tell a hundred. Today you can surely add a few zeros to the end of those numbers. How much business might be lost with a tweet exposed to 5,000 people that said, “ABC Travel on Main St ripped me off—steer clear! Pls R/T”? Or worse, “ABC Travel on Main St ripped me off—steer clear! Here’s their blog http://???????.com Pls comment and  R/T”? Suddenly, $750 seems like a small price to pay—especially when you are still able to salvage a little bit.

Be careful. It is a different world. We all know the customer is not always right; but if they think they are, you could be in a whole lot of trouble. Mistakes have happened to all of us and they will continue to happen. The real differentiators between the true professionals and the less than true ones will be in how the problems are handled.

What do you think? How would you have handled it? Have you ever been burned by social media? Burned anyone? Please leave your comments!

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  6 thoughts on “Screw up? Beware of social networking!

  1. Jonathan says:

    I think the word you’re looking for is “exacerbate.” Situations have no emotions and cannot become exasperated.

    Also, Southwest did not screw up by tossing Kevin Smith off the plane. He knew he was a two-seat guy at the time he bought two tickets for his original flight. I’m sure Southwest gained far more customers (and far more easy-to-haul customers) by protecting the rights of the people seated near him than they lost from indignant sympathizers.

    1. John Frenaye says:

      Good catch. Will correct. Thanks. The column was not necessarily if WN was right or wrong–but the dangers of social networking!

  2. Joe Buhler says:

    This latest episode with Southwest is another key reason why companies today have no choice but be engaged in the conversation taking place about their brand and customer service on the social web.

    Southwest and JetBlue are airlines that have taken this to heart and invest in the resources necessary to be able to respond in real-time to complaints. The legacy carriers are still lagging behind and last year’s infamous United broke my guitar video is evidence of that lack of awareness and sensitivity which can exact a high price.

    We live in a world of radical transparency and there is no place to hide. Not paying constant attention to the conversation is not an option any longer for businesses of any kind.

  3. Stuart Morcombe says:

    Social Media is only double edged if companies are not listening via Twitter/Fan Pages.

    How lucky are companies now to be able to see and respond to consumers that are “telling their friends” about their negative (postive) experiences.

    Complaints to friends used to be done at dinner parties or at the water cooler where no CEO could nip it in the bud.

    Companies are asking for the criticism if they ignore access to the open dialogue to their customers soul.

    1. John Frenaye says:

      Very true Stuart. Also important is how these companies handle the issues. Social networking is almost forcing a new culture among many companies.

  4. Stuart Morcombe says:

    Agreed! One of the things most companies don’t have is a policy & procedures document for communicating via social media.

    There are some interesting challenges to operating in 140 Characters or less.

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