How American Airlines Shows Their Social Clout

5 years ago by in Action Not Words, Featured Articles, Social Media Tagged: , ,

As someone who makes their living working in social business, I’m always on the lookout for great examples of how big brands tap the power of social media to better serve their customers. Since I head social media for a big brand, tax giant H&R Block, I’m always on the lookout for great stories of how social media is impacting business and customer satisfaction.

On my way home from a recent convention in New Orleans, I witnessed first-hand the power of social media as a customer service tool and how it can help brands get better – fast.

I had spent the previous four days speaking to franchisees and business partners at our annual H&R Block convention. The crux of my portion of a breakout sessions was the power of social media to help businesses like ours. Since our tax professionals help millions of Americans from retail storefronts, we’re in the retail business. That’s high-touch, high-anxiety stuff, especially during the emotionally charged tax season. The airline business is much of the same. Although, I have to say, I am sure the folks at the big airlines deal with much more emotion than we do.

Part of my presentation included the story of Canadian musician Dave Carroll. Carroll had flown United Airlines and had experienced an awful customer service snafu and failed social media response from the airline. He took out his frustrations by writing a song, “United Breaks Guitars,” and filming a whimsical music video that went viral. At the writing of this post, it has over 11 Million views on Facebook. It was a disaster for United and catapulted Carroll to social media fame overnight.

As I said, the airlines have it rough. They deal in delays and disappointment every day. In today’s socially connected world, it’s dangerous and one customer can have a massive impact on an airlines image.

As I sat waiting for my American Airlines flight back to Kansas City, I noticed a group of our franchisees were sitting together just a few seats from me. They were talking about being late or such (I wasn’t trying to eavesdrop) and I shifted my attention away from them and into another conversation.

A few minutes later, a gentleman and a woman with official airport badges came over to our franchisee, Dave Pollard from Colorado, and asked if he had posted a complaint on Facebook. Admitting that he was rather embarrassed that his Facebook complaint had been responded to – in person no less – Pollard soon had an in-person apology.

But how did he get to the point that he complained on American Airlines’ Facebook page? Here’s Dave’s story in a nutshell:

“When I got there the line at the baggage drop off area was already to the end of the maze, and we got in line and started chatting,” Pollard recalled.  “After about ten minutes I noticed it was moving really slowly.  I looked at the desk area and noticed that out of the eight desks two of them had American employees, explaining why the line was moving so slowly.

“Pretty soon us and the rest of the passengers in the line started openly talking about how slow this was and what a poor initial experience this was.  After 30 minutes we were 2/3 of the way through the line.  It was so frustrating.  I was worried about how long it would take to get through TSA security after his and thought I may miss my flight home to see my kids.  My frustration level began to rise. Then (still 2/3 through) one of the two employees gets up and leaves for break or something.  WE ARE DOWN TO ONE!  This pushed me and the other passengers over the edge.  The murmur was now open hatred.  I remembered the “United Breaks a Guitar” video and thought I would Facebook this.  Then I thought I would post it on their wall!  So I did.  I said, ‘line is really long… clear past the maze… moving slow… you are understaffed…you suck.’  About 10 or 15 minutes later I got to the baggage check lady.  There was no apology, no acknowledgement that we had to wait too long… just ‘business’ and no caring.

“We checked our bags and were able to move security pretty fast.  We got to our gate and sat down.  The flight was overbooked so they had not been able to assign my seats (party of 5) at the front of the airport. We waited for the gate to open and my wife went up to get us our boarding passes and seat assignments as soon as it opened.  She came back pretty quickly with our boarding passes.  She mentioned it was weird because the representative called her by name and said ‘Oh, you are the party of five? Here are your boarding passes and seat assignments.’  Usually they are not already printed for us.  About 2 minutes later, we heard our named called over the loudspeakers asking us to come to the podium.”

It was after this uncomfortable ordeal that I started to witness how this, and American’s reaction, began to unfold.

“We didn’t provide you with great service up front, and I am here to apologize,” the representative from American (it was the AA manager at Louis Armstrong Airport in New Orleans) in New Orleans told Pollard.

He then went on to explain that he had added employees to the front to resolve the problem to make sure no other passengers experienced what he and his party had.

“Social media is very fast and very powerful,” the AA manager told Pollard.


The AA manager also went on to make sure Pollard and his party had seat assignments and boarding passes to ensure the rest of their journey was uneventful.

Once again, we see how powerful a tool social media can be to push brands like ours to ensure they help clients or guests that are perhaps having a subpar experience. Many big brands get complaints every day but few go to the extent that American did to “make it right.” In fact, Pollard didn’t mention which flight or gate he was at yet American tracked him down to “save” the situation and turn a detractor into a net promoter in how they handled it.

Pollard wasn’t turning to Facebook and a complaint for any gain. As he says:

“I didn’t want any financial refund or reward. I just wanted the airline to live up to their part, and make sure I understood they would, and let me know they understood.  They didn’t even apologize at the desk. That would have gone a long way.”

Although we see people using social media and complaints for personal gain, I believe most consumers are just like Dave. They pay for a product or service and they just want fair and equal treatment. They don’t want perks or special treatment; they just want to get home to their kids after a long week on the road.

Despite American’s early failure, the airline shows its listening and willing to do whatever it takes to solve customer issues at the time they occur. That’s impressive in my book and something we all can learn from.

As I told our franchisees : this is the first time in the history of business that we can listen to, measure, and respond to negative word of mouth as it relates to our business.  That’s an amazingly powerful tool for us to get better and to serve our customers with excellent service. No brand gets it right 100% of the time. But by listening to and responding to our customers in social media, we can hopefully win back those we may have lost for good.

Article first published as American Airlines and the Case for Social Media on Technorati.



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