Low-cost companies catering to social networking

Oct 14 2009 - 4:31pm

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(The Associated Press) Public Relations Coordinator Christi Day monitors Southwest Airlines social networking sites at company headquarters in Dallas.
(The Associated Press) Public Relations Coordinator Christi Day monitors Southwest Airlines social networking sites at company headquarters in Dallas.

ATLANTA -- A Seattle woman tweets from an airport that JetBlue's birthday present to her was forgetting to put her wheelchair on her flight. Seven minutes later, an airline official tweets back that the crew will work quickly to make things right.

On a Facebook page used by Delta Air Lines, a traveler suggests Delta wrap its Wi-Fi fee into its ticket price rather than charge separately. The airline doesn't respond. The page mainly promotes the airline, talks up new services and offers travelers tips on popular things to do in the cities Delta flies to, like Las Vegas.

Discount airlines have traditionally outflanked the big network carriers in customer service and low fares, and it appears they're extending their advantage to social media. The discounters often respond with quick feedback to travelers' concerns on social networking sites, while traditional network carriers peddle last-minute fare deals but seem slow to embrace Twitter and Facebook to beef up customer service.

Customers crave good service and reward airlines that provide it.

A survey cited in a July report by Forrester Research showed that 68 percent of U.S. online leisure travelers say they'd be willing to recommend carriers to family and friends if the company made them feel like a valued customer.

That's a tantalizing incentive for airlines to transform customer service from the dull telephone and e-mail route into the online networking channel -- where every customer can speak his mind to the masses -- at a time when the weak economy has caused their revenue to plummet.

The Internet has opened the door to millions of people to beam their views across the planet on everything from the quality of airplane food to how long they waited on the tarmac to take off. This presents a conundrum for some airlines.

It takes manpower to troll social networking sites that are updated around the clock. JetBlue has 10 people involved with social networking; Southwest Airlines has seven. But the big carriers, with their higher costs, have faced budget cuts and reductions in management and frontline staff. US Airways, for instance, in July said it would eliminate 340 customer service agent positions around the country.

So, network carriers like American Airlines, Delta and Continental Airlines focus on merchandising, promotions, general information and other issues while taking baby steps when it comes to responding to complaints on social networking sites.

"I think we all believe there's gold in these hills. How to mine that gold, we all take different approaches," said Roger Frizzell, American's vice president of corporate communications and advertising.

Customers are carefully watching what the airlines are doing.

"Airlines should do more to connect with customers," traveler Laura Jackson, 62 of Hempstead, N.Y., who recently joined Twitter, said at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport. "I think from what I'm seeing, service could be improved if you could get a quick response."

Other industries, like cable television, have seen the benefits of social networking.

After getting a bad rap for customer service a few years ago, Comcast enlisted seven employees to scour Web postings for complaints and try to resolve them. Besides blogs, the team checks tech Web sites, Twitter, consumer sites and even YouTube. A University of Michigan survey released in May found that Comcast showed the biggest gain in customer satisfaction among cable and satellite TV operators. Its overall score rose 9.3 percent from the prior year.

JetBlue, which has an informal group of workers involved with monitoring social networking sites and responding to customers, believes that in the future, social media will become a part of all of its employees' jobs. JetBlue has a million followers on Twitter, more than any other airline.

Southwest's decision to monitor and participate in social networking sites is not surprising, since the Dallas-based carrier built its airline around top-notch customer service. Southwest, which gave its customer service and reservations agents a 3 percent pay raise and better retirement benefits earlier this year, had the highest score in passenger satisfaction with airline service in May's University of Michigan study.

Paula Berg, Southwest's manager of emerging media, says the carrier jumped into the online social networking arena very early, using the sites primarily as a communication tool and to engage its customers. It has nearly 500,000 followers on Twitter.

Meanwhile, the bigger carriers tread more carefully. They appear more comfortable hawking fare sales and providing weather updates and information about new routes and flight delays. For example, American earlier this year announced a 5 percent discount sale through its Facebook page.

American thinks that social media shouldn't be a replacement for existing customer service in which representatives respond to calls and e-mails from customers.

US Airways spokeswoman Michelle Mohr says that while Twitter and Facebook are hot topics right now, the carrier doesn't believe in "just jumping on the bandwagon."

And not all air travelers want to be part of a virtual focus group, which is why some bigger carriers for now just have their toes in the water.

"I think that it would make me less interested in flying with them," said Sheila Wood, 26, of Bayport, N.Y., responding to a Facebook query from a reporter. She said social networking sites should be for social time, not corporate intrusion.

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AP Airlines Writer Samantha Bomkamp contributed to this report from New York.

 

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