Her Views · Marketing

communication lessons from american airlines

I recently took a trip to the Midwest to visit family, and endured one of my worst travel experiences, stuck in O’Hare airport overnight on what should have been an otherwise routine journey – one I’ve taken many times. As a communications director, I watched and listened with interest as American Airlines failed to manage a customer service snag that literally grew by the hour.

A quick overview: The trip from southern California to Springfield, Missouri normally takes 6-8 hours, and includes a connection in Dallas or O’Hare. These airports are frequently impacted by weather. In fact, we left SoCal late, because flights were backed up at O’Hare because of thunderstorms.

I arrived at O’Hare in time to catch my 6:45pm connecting flight, now listed as departing at 8:10pm. Then for the next 5 hours, American bumped the flight back about one hour, every hour. People were generally patient. Sometime after midnight, we finally boarded the plane. When fully boarded, we were told the flight was cancelled and instructed to exit. Flights were rebooked for the following day and I reached my destination 27 hours after original departure.

Here are 5 ways communication in any customer-oriented industry can be more effective:

1. Proactively communicate the situation.
The first departure delays happened without any explanation. As people became more frustrated, AA finally announced they were scrambling to put together crews for multiple delayed flights. Waiting to respond until people are upset is never a good strategy.

2. Identify with the customer.
Beyond the obligatory “we’re sorry for the delay,” acknowledging the situation would have greatly helped. “We know your time is important,” or “We know you have someplace important to be, and we’re doing everything we can to get you there.” Empathy goes a long way.

3. Explain what happened.
While a good apology is a significant first step, a brief explanation of what caused the problem is also important. People are generally reasonable and understand malfunctions, human error, and system breakdowns. Identifying the problem means you can fix it (see number 4 below). When passengers were finally ordered off the cancelled flight, AA offered neither apology nor explanation. One gate agent said there was more bad weather between Chicago and Springfield. Another said one of the pilots had “timed out.” The agents were dealing with real people face-to-face, and trying to provide good customer service. But because there wasn’t one clear message, these differing explanations only made AA look inept at best, and uncaring/untrustworthy at worst.

4. Fix the problem.
Let the customer know what steps you are taking to avoid the problem in the future. If the problem is of a potentially recurring nature, offer to make this occurrence right – a refund, a gift certificate, etc. AA did neither. With an overnight delay, there were no offers of drink or meal vouchers. Even worse, in a situation where hotel vouchers were required, AA announced their contracted hotel was an hour away. At 1:00 in the morning, with re-scheduled 9am flights, they don’t get many takers. And in a city consistently disrupted by bad weather, this clearly works only in their favor. Building a system that appears to stack the deck against your customer is just ugly. Sincerity, apologies and explanations go a long way, but don’t forget that actions speak much louder than words.

5. All the above apply to Social media.
Having a social media strategy in place to respond to online comments and complaints is essential. But merely responding isn’t enough. As an arm of marketing or customer service or public relations, your social media plan should be aligned and empowered to deliver on steps 1-4 above.

In my case, after spending the night at O’Hare, showing up to my 9:15am flight and finding it bumped to 9:45 (the 6th consecutive delay), I engaged AA’s corporate Twitter account, @AmericanAir. You can enjoy our conversation here. While trying to be sympathetic, notice the responses never actually engage with what I’m saying. Again, social media is one of the best ways to identify with a customer, empathize, explain, or outline corrective measures. Take advantage of the very specific information provided to measure and improve service.

In a technological world that provides more platforms for customers to voice their opinions, it’s more important than ever for organizations to influence and leverage those opinions positively.

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