When “Oh No!” Is What You Want To Hear From Your Airline

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(This post originally appeared on Forbes)

If you were travelling to or from the East Coast over the past few days, and your flight was one of the thousands canceled or delayed because of the latest winter storm, you may not want to read this. You might be hating on American Airlines right now. I understand.

Even when the weather isn’t bad you probably have your complaints about the airlines – the delays, the small seats, the bag fees. I’ve heard it all before. I fly a lot – about 3-6 times a month on average – and my preferred airline is US Airways (now American Airlines, I’m still getting used to the change) mainly because my home airport is Philadelphia and they’re the main carrier there. But I’m not in the “I hate airlines camp.” I’m in the “Louis CK” camp – to me it’s still amazing at all that we are “sitting in a chair…in the sky,” and are transported thousands of miles to our destinations relatively on time and safely.

Which brings me back to American Airlines. Not only is this a company that transports its passengers safely and relatively on time to pretty much anywhere in the world, but it’s a company that teaches me, a small business owner, a lot about how to run a professional Twitter account. I think their Twitter feed is…well…awesome. And it’s because they frequently use these two words in their reply to users: “Oh no!” Just take a look at @AmericanAir (which is merging with @USAirways on February 28th). The account has experienced an enormous amount of activity this weekend due to weather problems. That means a lot of angry customers. And a lot of empathetic “Oh no’s” from their social media team. And you know what? They do a good job on Twitter. Why?

They respond to everything fast. I’m sure there are exceptions, but just about every tweet gets responded to within minutes. And this is important because customers want to feel like someone out there is listening to them. We don’t always get that kind of love at the gate or when on hold with reservations (which is another matter altogether and one that most airlines should address). But on Twitter, when @llouben complained at 12:46AM about a problem finding his bag, @AmericanAir replied at 1:04AM that there was a problem with the baggage system at his airport due to the weather.  When @TheFancyNancywas concerned at 4:40AM about a delay on her flight to New York, @AmericanAir provided her the explanation at 4:48 AM (the crew was on a required rest period).  And when a customer’s mom had a bad experience they replied within the hour “Oh no, Tonya. What’s the flight number? Have you been rebooked yet?” I’m not saying that these passengers received the answers they wanted, but at least they got an empathetic response from the airline and in a relatively short of amount of time.

They always keep it professional. Let’s face it, most people are not going to tweet at an airline because they’re happy. In fact, my unscientific calculations show that the great majority of tweets to @AmericanAir are complaints or some type of not-so-amused comment. Like when @CoachPrice11 complained about “unbelievably poor service and customer service by AA” or when @Lynne2daywrites: “@AmericanAir how about #CustomerService #1 #communication #keepusinformed! Once again on a #newplanetonowhere!!” I get it. Sometimes things are frustrating and super-annoying when changes are made to your travel plans for what seems like no rational cause. Justified or not, reasonable or not, you’re not going to find an unprofessional reply from @AmericanAir’sTwitter account. You get things like “Oh no! We’re sorry you were left feeling this way. We understand you’ve been rebooked. Please let us know how else we can help you.” Or “That’s unfortunately correct, Lynne. We show you’ve been rebooked on the same flight tomorrow.” Because that’s what you do when you’re on social media. You don’t get into wars with people, unless you enjoy being publicly trashed on Consumerist.

They act. When you tweet @AmericanAir’s social media team, you get the impression that they are genuinely an arm of customer service. And by saying “Oh no!” they’re genuinely sympathetic. Which is what Twitter is all about: communications with your customers and responding to their needs. So they use Twitter to act on problems. Sometimes it’s to check that a flight was rebooked, or alert the reservations team or to provide a link with more information. Other times it’s just to give an explanation (a crew change, a weather issue) and sometimes it’s just to say “Oh no” or “we’re sorry” when there’s a problem outside of their control. In many cases, the team direct messages the customer so that they can take the conversation private in order to address the problem. No matter the method some action is taken, some response given, some type of corporate acknowledgment is received. By a human, not (as some people think) by a script. Of course this doesn’t always solve the problem but it gives a little comfort. Comfort that wasn’t there before Twitter.

Finally, and most importantly, they are completely transparent. Go ahead and look at @AmericanAir’s conversations with its customers. Most of it isn’t pretty. Some customers are angry. Many are frustrated. Others vow never to use the airline again. But then again, there are small victories too. “Forgot my iPad on the plane realized it next day You found it Thank You” wrote @SMColorist . “Thank you! Jennifer in your call center has been assisting me and is doing a fantastic job making sure everything is situated!” said @JeremyMoses26. “Why is my @USAirways pilot never called James. Just once I want to shout at the cockpit, say “Home James” and get “you got it” shouted back” joked@CakeNDeath. But it’s all there for everyone to see – the good, the bad, the unfunny jokes. If your company is going to be on Twitter you’re going to have to be honest and open to the world, because that’s how social media works.

American Airlines, like most large service companies, has made a significant investment to make its Twitter account a relevant source of communication with its customers. And yet, with all of the effort that American puts into its Twitter account, there is still much more to be done. Some suggestions: email or tweeting follow-ups with unhappy customers 24-48 hours later, even if automated, would have a positive impact. Tweets about the flight from the gate team or even the plane’s captain or crew (if done safely, of course!) would be a great way to personalize a flyer’s experience.  Using hashtags to provide more detailed info about a flight to its passengers would be helpful. Look, we just want information. We hate to be kept in the dark. Twitter is the perfect medium to do this and @AmericanAir is just scratching the surface.

That said, and no matter if you had a good flying experience or not, there’s still a couple of things you can appreciate about American Airlines: how they use Twitter (and a few “Oh no’s) to empathetically engage and how, in the end, they manage to safely fly you, as “you sit in a chair…in the sky” to your destination and (weather permitting) get you there mostly on time.

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