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British Airways dinged by promoted Tweet - who cares?

Den Howlett Profile picture for user gonzodaddy September 3, 2013
Summary:
BA got publicly dinged by a promoted tweet complaining about the airline's service. I get why that happened but what lessons can be learned?

BA plane
British Airways, my current favorite airline got a taste of the reputational damage a promoted Tweet can wreak. From the BBC:

The promoted tweet bought by Mr Syed reads: "Don't fly @BritishAirways. Their customer service is horrendous."

Ouch! Syed was complaining about a lost luggage issue he considered was poorly handled by BA. It got the desired result.

"We would like to apologise to the customer for the inconvenience caused. We have been in contact with the customer and the bag is due to be delivered today," British Airways told the BBC.

However, the case outcome is not all there is to the story. According to a BA Tweet:

Sorry for the delay in responding, our twitter feed is open 09:00-17:00 GMT. Please DM [direct message] your baggage ref and we'll look into this.

That fits (roughly) in line with British Airways' customer service hours. In this case it meant that other news services were able to pick up the promoted Tweet 10 hours before BA was in a position to respond. That may seem trivial but if you're on the wrong end of lost luggage then it's a lifetime.

Over at Mashable, the comment thread makes interesting reading. On a quick comment fly by, it seems that roughly half those leaving comments believe Syed was a douchebag, the other half think he was super smart. I'm in the super smart club having Tweeted service issues in the past and got a result.

As the BBC points out, brands have yet to understand the 24 hour, always on nature of a connected world. However, the reputational damage my be limited. I don't see how for example, the fact a Tweet was seen by thousands of people makes any difference to service. For example, according to the latest available stats, United Airlines, often cast as a villain, continues to enjoy the top spot for international traffic departing the US by US airlines per the table below, albeit its total traffic has fallen slightly:

United Airlines traffic

The picture changes when it comes to domestic travel. In that table, United shed 4.9 percent in the same year. Now, there are many reasons why seats flown might change including reduced routes, cancelled flights and other operational problems so we cannot necessarily read much into these stats. However, if the social media impact was as much as some sugest then you'd expect to see this highlighted as a reason for change.

Instead, I rather suspect the airlines are experimenting from within their current business models to see what sticks in social media and what doesn't. I'm not convinced this is the best way to proceed but so far it doesn't appear to have made any significant negative impact.

Complain or praise?

Interestingly, a small number of those commenting on the Mashable story correctly point out that many more complain publicly than praise. I'm a great believer in giving kudos where it is due. To that extent I've always regarded myself as an equal opportunity flamethrower. That makes the following exchange on Facebook all the more interesting.

dah facebook

Here's the background:

In the last few weeks, BA has rolled out iPads with passenger information to their cabin staff.  If you are a Gold flyer (as I am) then they come to your seat and give you a personal greeting, making sure you know that if there is any problem then they are there to service your request. BA's ticketing system also knows if you're a Gold flyer and when any class of seat is over booked, it first looks for Gold flyers to see if they're traveling alone. I almost always travel alone. They then upgrade where possible. This happens a lot to me although I have heard that other Gold flyers and especially women, rarely get upgraded. Even so, I believe that such events are worth highlighting and say so.

BA has also been sending some of its customers cards that it can hand to staff the customer believes has given exemplary service. I assume they get rewarded. It's a good idea and one that fits well with the notion of shared reward.

As an aside, one of the routes I often fly uses old BA planes that have definitely seen better days. They're also late departing on what feels like at least 50 percent of occasions. Nevertheless, these planes are far more comfortable than those offered on low cost airlines with the bonus that everyone is treated like a valued customer and not a captive sales audience. And the lateness in leaving is not that much of an inconvenience to me as I am usually on the end of a set of connected flights. I also learned that BA has the best British based airline safety record. As someone who flies some 250,00 miles a year, that's an important consideration in my choice of airline.

Verdict

Running an airline is a complex business. Running a large international airline is mind boggling. Mistakes are bound to be made Frequent flyers are all too familiar with the vagaries of service. BA and Iberia combined carried 54.6 million passengers in 2012. However, the last available stats on lost baggage for BA I can find date back to 2007. These say 23 bags went missing for every 1000 passengers. Assuming those numbers remain constant then 1.25 million bags go adrift for all the passengers flown. That's a huge number by any standards. Even so, the study claims 85 percent are returned within 48 hours. That still leaves 188,370 or 516 per day, still a large number but not so much when you consider the number of flights operated per day.

Even so, BAs track record doesn't stack up well when compared to other operators. It knows it needs to do better. One of the ways it can improve is through the judicious use of social media. It strikes me that the additional cost of continuous media monitoring would be outweighed by the useful input to BAs already active presence on Twitter and Facebook. What do you think?

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