Note to Airlines: Start Talking to Your Customers

Apr 23 2014, 5:01pm CDT | by

When it comes to air travel, there’s certainly no shortage of bad customer stories.

A report released last week by the U.S. PIRG Education Fund pored through five years of airline passenger complaints to the Department of Transportation, examining complaint categories and frequency of several major airlines.

The message was clear: in the airline industry, customer service is king.

Over the past five years, total complaints about U.S. carriers have risen by more than 30%. Spirit Airlines came in with the most complaints, United and Frontier claiming the dismal second and third spots.  On a brighter note, since 2009, Southwest and Alaska have consistently secured the lowest percentage of customer complaints per year. In terms of complaints by category, flight problems represent around 30% of complaints in any given year, with baggage issues, ticketing and rescheduling, and customer service earning their place as customer hot buttons.

So what’s the takeaway?

In some ways, I’m not sure this report is as relevant anymore.  Sure, it’s important for the government – especially the FAA or DOT – to have this data.  And it’s always good for customers to have a formal avenue for filing complaints and receiving redress.  But times sure have changed.

Ten years ago, a passenger could file a complaint with the government and badmouth the airline through somewhat limited social networks.  Five years before that, the best anyone could do was enjoy a lengthy wait time to speak to a powerless customer service person – and then maybe file a formal complaint.  Today, a dissatisfied passenger can complain about the airline on Twitter and Facebook, all while sitting on the tarmac.  A family can post pictures of damaged luggage seconds after they pull it off the baggage corral.  A fellow passenger with an iPhone can surreptitiously capture an interaction with an unpleasant staff person. With the instant gratification that social media provides, scores of people have begun bypassing government complaints altogether.  Why wait?  Airlines with the worst customer service can be called out immediately – in a highly visible way – with pressure to respond immediately.

Southwest is eighth (of 11!) airlines in terms of on-time flights. But it enjoys the lowest complaint rate of ANY airline.  How is this remotely possible?  Two words: customer service.  Although branded a budget carrier, Southwest has also established itself as one of the most flexible and passenger-friendly airlines out there. It encourages employees to find creative solutions at various pain points, which goes a long way in terms of customer satisfaction. They’re socially savvy; YouTube videos of rapping employees and wisecracking flight attendants have a lasting impression on people, making them more likely to let a delay or cancellation slide once in a while.

So how should other airlines catch up to Southwest and Alaska? The answer may be as simple as starting a conversation. Fifty percent of consumers give a company only one week to respond to their complaints before they stop doing business with them. Airlines such as United have become known for stony silence, which damages reputation. Instead of ignoring customers, or hoping they’ll quiet down, airlines should engage them and work hard to address complaints in a timely manner. Talking publicly with customers establishes goodwill and leaves them with the sense that the airline really interested in being helpful. Having a sense of humor – especially on platforms like Twitter – is important too.  It adds a humanizing element to an otherwise faceless behemoth of a company.

Complaints aside, we are so fortunate to live in the Golden Age of airline safety – and we should be grateful to the airlines, technologists, the FAA and other regulators for making it so.  That said, social media now plays an integral role in the marketing efforts of all successful brands. The airline industry is no different, and sometimes all it takes to tip the scales is a simple conversation.

 
 
 

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