Social Media Requires Being Human

While on a trip to California to speak at an event last month, I took the opportunity to see how hospitality and travel companies respond (or don’t respond) using Twitter. I hope you enjoy the lessons I learned from my interaction with the various companies. If you have not already figured it out, Twitter is another channel your clients and partners can use to communicate with you. For those who think of it as just 140 characters, realize that Twitter allows for instant communication to address and resolve issues with your customers quickly and efficiently. If done properly, you can create great experience for your customers. If you miss the boat and think of it as just a toy, then you can have the opposite effect.

Interaction with two major hotel groups

During my trip, I stayed at Hilton and Marriott branded properties. Prior to arrival at each, I sent a Tweet saying I would be at their property that week. Almost instantly, each company responded saying that they looked forward to my visit. One of the Marriott properties sent a message from the Twitter handle for the specific property. Before I even had stayed there, they formed a personal relationship with me. They asked if I had any special requests. Marriott figured out how to use Twitter to engage with guests prior to arrival, and they made me feel welcome.

The Hilton property I stayed at was a Doubletree Suites in downtown Los Angeles. When I arrived, they didn’t have the room type I was expecting. I sent a Twitter message noting that I was not thrilled. Almost instantly, Hilton responded that someone would be in touch. Moments later, the phone rang in my room. It was the assistant general manager from the property. He offered many things that were above and beyond the call of duty. In short, Hilton and Marriot both used Twitter and social media as a channel to listen to, engage with, and directly connect customers to people who can resolve issues promptly. This type of activity breeds loyalty, and demonstrates a willingness to communicate with customers using their preferred channel. In each interaction with Marriott and Hilton, their communication was what Chris Brogan would call “human.” They did not copy and paste a pre-written piece of text. Rather, they took the time to connect person-to-person. It made a positive impression.

Then there is the airline

On my flight from Washington, DC to Los Angeles, my flight experience was less than stellar. Part of the seat was broken, service was lacking, and the flight sat at LAX on arrival for an hour without explanation before arriving at the gate two hours later than scheduled.

I sent a Twitter direct message to United Airlines about the issues. After several messages, there was still no response. I received a generic response 16 hours later asking how they could be of assistance. I responded quickly, and two hours later, United responded asking for information I had already provided. Hours later, the social media team said “Please share details w/ our Customer Care Team.” They provided a URL to a form requesting the same information I had already provided twice via Twitter. I complied, and received an automated response:

“…Thank you for contacting United Airlines. Our Customer Care team is currently responding to most inquiries within 14-21 business days…”

Keep in mind that this is an airline I have held every status including their highest level, Global Services. I have flown the better part of 1 million miles, and many of my tickets are the high-value tickets that are critical to their success. For them to say it would take 14-21 business days to respond to my inquiry — are you kidding me? Nobody reached out personally. In fact, it has been two weeks, and I have still not heard from anyone at United Airlines. The irony is that I would prefer to like the airline, but their lack of human response to serious service issues leaves me and many others with a complete lack of brand loyalty. The hotels, on the other hand, did a stellar job.

Financial Results Speak Volumes

In the first quarter of 2014, United Airlines was the only carrier to post losses. In fact, they lost over $600 million while the competition thrived with huge profits. In this Bloomberg Businessweek article, Jeff Smisek, United’s CEO reportedly said, “Our customer service historically since the merger has not been as good as it should be.” But, talk is cheap. What are they doing about it?

What Lessons Can You Learn?

Hilton, Marriott, and United Airlines each employ wonderful, caring professionals. However, actions speak volumes. Here are lessons any business can learn from my experiences:

  • Respond or Get Out: If you provide a means for customers to contact you via Twitter or other social media, then be sure to respond in a timely manner. If you cannot, then provide an autoresponder message that explains you don’t serve customers in that channel. By providing Twitter access to your customers and not responding, you can make matters worse.
  • One Size Does Not Fit All: Prioritize customer service based on loyalty and customer value. An issue or inquiry from a loyal customer with high-value business warrants a response within one day if not within an hour.
  • Be Human: Hilton and Marriott demonstrated how providing a human connection helped to form a relationship with their company before I even arrived. Of course, the total spent for all hotel nights was less than the price of the airfare. Focus on the human connection, and customer loyalty will follow.

It’s Your Turn

What are the shining stars and horrible failures you have seen in your travels?