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!