Problem with your flight? Why you should slide into your airline's DMs to get help
FORT WORTH, Texas — On the wall in front of Lynn Stines' desk at American Airlines headquarters, several large monitors display brightly colored graphics that give her an idea of how people are talking about the brand on social media.
One shows the number of tweet mentions per airline and whether those tweets are positive or negative. Another shows the keywords of tweets coming in for American, while a third screen scrolls incoming tweets.
The chatter on this day is mostly over how weather in the Northeast is affecting flights, along with a few lingering tweets about the Hail Satan T-shirt controversy that had buzzed around social media a few days before.
On Stines' computer, 180 tweets await a response.
That's a fairly typical amount.
American estimates it receives 4,500 tweets daily as fliers turn to social media to get immediate responses to their needs, ranging from delayed baggage to help with reservations.
But instead of handling these customer issues privately by phone or email, Stines is answering in front of an audience of millions.
So perhaps it isn't surprising that American and its Dallas-based competitor Southwest Airlines staff their social media teams with some of their best customer service reps.
If you've ever hesitated on whether to tweet your airline, know that they say it is perfectly OK to slide into their DMs. They're ready to help.
Meeting customers where they are
Stines is typical of the person responding to tweets sent to major airlines' brand accounts. Before she joined American's social media customer service team eight years ago, she had more than 11 years in customer service.
It's also a sign of how social media has evolved for airlines and their customers.
When Annette Hernandez, American's senior manager, social media customer service, launched the airline's social media team in 2012, the team operated eight hours a day with just herself and a temporary employee. Now the desk operates 24/7.
Hernandez said she usually hires members with a solid background in reservations, often those who have worked in positions helping the airline's elite status frequent fliers because those employees have a deep understanding of the airline and its systems.
"They’re very familiar with working with a lot of complex issues because those customers travel a lot and they have some pretty complicated changes to itineraries," Hernandez said.
It's a similar story at Southwest Airlines, which sent its first tweet on June 10, 2011. Now it has a team of 35 people, mostly staffed by those who have worked in customer service.
"We’ve seen the volume grow and that’s where we’ve grown our staff to meet the demand," said Rob Hahn, business consultant, social customer care for Southwest.
Putting social media at the heart of operations
Along with being a forum for problem-solving, Twitter has become an important place for airlines to gather feedback about how their decisions are affecting travelers. It has allowed them to react to small issues before they become larger problems.
American and Southwest both station some of their social media team members on the bridges of their operations centers to help them respond to customer needs in real time.
For example, Stines said that a few years ago ahead of Thanksgiving, she spotted dozens of tweets from customers in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands. Security delays were causing them to miss their flights and they were worried they might not get home before the holiday.
She relayed this to the team and American sent another airplane down to ferry everyone back in time for Thanksgiving.
"I was thrilled to pieces to be part of that," Stines said.
Hernandez offered another example when the American social media team noticed that people on a flight that was diverted to Austin because of weather were lamenting on Twitter that they would have another two hours on the tarmac.
The social media team relayed that to the operations center, which actually was showing a 20-minute delay. They were able to radio the pilot, who gave the correct information to the passengers.
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Not all the tweets are crabby
Perhaps surprisingly, the social media representatives at both airlines said most tweets they receive are pleasant. Often, people tweet to compliment an employee. The airlines pass those along to the employees' managers and try to recognize the employees.
Many other tweets are people sharing their travel adventures.
“I love connecting with customers on their travel journey," said Linnea Jordan, who has worked on Southwest's social media team for four years.
Of course, there is the occasional crank tweet.
Two years ago, Jordan received an odd complaint about a flight attendant. She asked for the confirmation number and the flight attendant's name. The person said they didn't have either – but did have a picture.
The picture was Britney Spears dressed in a flight attendant uniform from her "Toxic" video.
"Oh my gosh. He played me. How did I fall for that?" Jordan said.
Then she crafted what would become a viral response.
"So my first instinct back was an “Oops, I did it again'," she said.
The customer screenshotted and shared the tweet.
"I learned very quickly what happens in DM does not always stay in a DM," she laughed.
Tips for tweeting your airline
The social media reps at Southwest and American can do anything a customer service rep can. Here's how to reach out on a public forum like Twitter.
Be nice. Those are real human beings on the other side of that tweet.
Share your journey. The people who run social media enjoy seeing your travels. They might even share in that joy. Jordan said she has occasionally surprised loyal customers with free WiFi codes or champagne for special occasions. "I just love knowing that our customers are being taken care of when I am working with them," she said.
Be realistic. If you have a basic economy ticket, you're not going to be upgraded to first class. Be able to clearly communicate what your issue is and how they can help fix it.
Slide into the DMs. As tempting as it might seem to publicly shame an airline, the information they need to fix your situation must be communicated through direct message. That's for your privacy: They don't want to put your flight or personal information out for everyone to see. So save yourself a step and send a direct message first. And airline DMs are always open – you don't need to follow an airline to send it a message.
Give details. Know your flight number, reservation number and your frequent flier number. This will help the agent find your reservation quickly. Remember: Send this info privately through direct message. Don't tweet it publicly.
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