Travel Nightmares and Twitter Customer Support

Nathan Imperiale

Category: Strategy


I travel often and am unfortunately plagued by delayed flights, canceled flights, bad weather, overbooking and technical problems on a regular basis. In fact, NJI partner Josh Shultz refuses to travel on the same flights as me for risk of catching my bad travel karma. After countless nightmare travel delays over the years, I have become fairly skilled at tapping into all available airline customer support options. One tool that can often be helpful is Twitter. Many travelers like myself are now turning to Twitter customer support teams when travel issues arise. There are many companies that provide stelar customer service via Twitter. However, a recent travel debacle has brought to light some companies’ serious deficiencies when it comes to embracing this ever growing customer support trend.

Let me paint a picture picture for you: My outbound flight to Arizona this weekend was delayed and I missed my connecting flight to California, resulting in an unpleasant overnight stay in Phoenix – nothing against Phoenix, I just got stuck in a lousy airport hotel. The same senario repeated itself upon my return to DC a couple days later. Trying to get myself on next available flights after these delays was far more difficult than usual. Getting someone to talk to me over the phone at Continental Airlines practically took an act of congress after waiting on hold for an hour, but that’s yet another issue. As I was on hold, I decided to give Continental’s Twitter customer support team a try. After looking at recent tweets by @Continental, I saw that they did, in fact, seem to respond to requests for help.

But I never received any assistance – not even a reply. Continental was silent.

Continental airlines clearly has broad customer support problems. To my mind, the worst of these is the airline’s attempt to fake it when it comes to customer support on Twitter. Only responding to some of the issues that come through their @Continental handle is not service, nor is it sound strategy. Providing decent customer support via Twitter should not be difficult. Companies like Citigroup (@AskCiti), BlackBerry (@BlackBerryHelp), and Southwest Airlines (@SouthwestAir) provide their customers with speedy support. In many cases, you can often get assistance quicker on Twitter than you can using the traditional method of calling a customer support hotline. For those of you like me, I’m always looking for the shortest, simplest solution to any support issue whether it’s finding another flight or fixing my cable box.

However, having a Twitter handle isn’t a quick fix.

Take the case of screenwriter and director Kevin Smith, who was asked to leave a Southwest Airlines flight in February of 2010 for being “too fat to fly.” Smith’s removal – for which Southwest later apologized multiple times on its blog – inspired him to take to Twitter and let his followers (currently over 1.7M) know about what happened. He was incensed, and he let Southwest have it in a stream of tweets chastising the airline for its conduct and, initially, its unwillingness to admit its mistake. The lesson? Even with a dynamic Twitter presence and active followers, nothing gets the job done quite like diligence. Southwest tweeted Smith multiple times after the event to apologize and ask how the airline could make it up to him. Smith himself noted that a Southwest employee at the airport in question quickly received word of his tweets from corporate headquarters, found Smith waiting for his next flight, and asked him to stop the tirade. Considering the size of the company, that’s a pretty fast response time.

But imagine what could have been avoided had Southwest been that much faster. I’m certain some day soon it will be commonly understood that not responding to consumers on Twitter is a PR failure. Until then, though, investing the time and resources in maintaining a responsive Twitter customer support system keeps companies on the front lines of service. More importantly, it keeps them in front of the most important party involved: the consumers.

To read more of NJI Media’s research on customer service and Twitter, read our wrap-up of BlogwellDC’s conference and Delta’s Twitter support.

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