“Your flight has been cancelled.” The five words every airline passenger dreads hearing after mechanical problems, labor issues or a reduction of airport capacity disrupts travel plans. An even worse sense of panic sets in when all flights to a particular region are cancelled due to unforeseen or troubling circumstances, like the recent events in Turkey.

When regular operations turn into irregular operations (IROPS), both airlines and airports have to work with urgency to keep the lines of communication open and active. Social media channels are not only an opportunity to build an airline’s reputation and influence, but also to preserve relationships worldwide with the public, travelers, customers, partners, bloggers and the media.

In situations where people’s travel plans are affected, family members are left stranded, or there’s simply a lack of information flowing to those who need it, a carefully crafted IROP plan makes the difference between a customer service opportunity or a brand disaster.

As more airlines look to develop truly passenger-first IROP processes, communication across the many customer touch-points prevalent today, particularly real-time channels such as Facebook and Twitter, comes into focus. Data from travel technology firm Amadeus and travel research group PhoCusWright, shows 51% of passengers who experienced a flight delay or disruption were most frustrated by a lack of communication or conflicting information from an airline about why a disruption occurred. By comparison, 27% of passengers were most frustrated by not being offered compensation after a disruption.



Image source: Amadeus


“Loyalty is driven by how well a company delivers on its basic promises and solves day-to-day problems, not on how spectacular its service experience might be. Most customers don’t want to be “wowed”; they want an effortless experience. And they are far more likely to punish you for bad service than to reward you for good service.” – Matt Dixon, The Effortless Experience

For a growing majority of consumers, it’s not what you get after a negative experience with a brand, it’s how quickly and painlessly that problem is resolved in the moment. This sentiment was echoed by passengers last week when Turkish Airlines, one of the world’s most loved airlines, voted Europe’s Best Airline for 5 years in a row, was forced to cancel 196 domestic and international flights after a coup attempt in the country. The event set off a wave of many more flight cancellations from British Airways, Lufthansa, TUI and other European carriers, but Turkish Airlines passengers took to social media with a heightened level of angst, despite the brand having one of the highest customer satisfaction rates in the business.






No matter what the cause, how close to home or how unpredictable the event may have been, passengers will view irregular operations as “journey disruptions” if they result in any change to booked and confirmed travel – and in most cases they’ll blame the airline. These days, customers also expect to receive support and ongoing communications during these journey disruptions on their preferred digital channel, meaning frustrations run even higher when both traditional (phone) and preferred online customer channels are met with slow or no response (see tweets above). In fact, Forrester Research data shows, on average, 38% of all US online consumers of all ages prefer online customer service to the phone, making social channels the obvious first choice for many travelers in these kinds of events.

In this context, IROPS can create a mix of three dangerous elements:

  1. Journey disruption;
  2. Customer frustration at poor communication, misinformation or a lack of service on their preferred channels;
  3. The wrong technology in place to deal with a massive rise in incoming customer volume on social and other digital channels

When this happens, as we saw last week, customers seek relief (or vengeance as it may be) in any way they can, often by taking to social media in the hopes that either the airline will hear them and help, or failing that, others will know about the terrible service they’re experiencing and the brand will be punished. Yes, research shows customers have an impulse to punish bad service (real or perceived) and are more likely to do this on self-service channels online.

The good news is, airlines are already leading the way in transforming “in the moment” customer service, which is so critical in the midst of IROP events. Social customer service, when delivered at scale, even has the power to turn irregular operations into brand-building, loyalty driving customer experiences, where passengers’ needs are put first and issues can be resolved with immediacy, even without channel deflection.

Read on to learn how social media can help guide a safe landing in the event of operational turbulence.

The immediacy imperative

On average, only 40% of social media complaints are addressed, while 39% of social media complainers expect a response within 1 hour. In unpredictable events where many hundreds or thousands of passengers suddenly require immediate assistance, responding to a complaint on social media channels has the potential to increase customer advocacy by 20%, while not responding to a complaint can decrease customer advocacy by 45%. Research from Twitter also shows that satisfied Twitter users tell their friends and are willing to recommend an airline after a positive interaction on Twitter. Around 82% of Twitter users who hear from airlines directly share their positive experience with others, compared to just 44% of customers who receive phone, email, chat or in person service.

Based on these numbers, the need for immediacy in serving customers during IROP situations becomes even more critical and presents an even greater possible outcome in terms of brand-building and differentiation. But, given the lack of consistency in the way even leading brands manage social customer service today, there are two key factors to consider first in order to improve response times and immediacy during IROP situations.

Get your social customer service team together

  1. The fastest way to do this is to look within your existing customer service team. Think about your experienced agents who already know your airline’s company policy, procedures, standards, and goals and are primed to hit the ground running with the knowledge to support people immediately on social and mobile channels. What about those agents who already have ridiculously low customer handle times on their record? You want these fast-responders ready to vaporize issues as soon as your customers hit send, post or comment.
  2. Most importantly, given the increasing regularity of IROP situations all over the world, you will need social customer care agents who are empathetic, fanatical about service and capable of moderating a high volume of inbound content. Agents who can stay calm under stress and think creatively to resolve difficult situations, combined with some cursory knowledge of social media, are an added plus.

Let technology do the heavy lifting for you

The old adage here applies – you need the right tools for the right job. Teams trying to deliver social customer service using “social suites” or marketing platforms report feeling significantly less satisfied than when using a dedicated customer service solution designed for digital channels. Your agents want to help customers and solve issues quickly, but without the right tools in place on top of social volume that could rise rapidly during an IROP event, frustrating customers is inevitable.

Being able to scale quickly comes down to automating the flow from when a customer sends a tweet or message to when it arrives in front of an agent. Just like when a customer contacts a call center for support and selects an issue from an automated voice menu, you need an instant way to understand the issue that needs to be solved and get it as quickly as possible to the agent best matched for the customer. There are two key ways agent teams can lean on technology to help more customers, faster:

  1. Nail your automated routing to crush the queue faster. Getting your agents all the context they need to start updating flight details, resolving ticketing errors or empathizing about lost baggage can happen much faster with things like automated conversation distribution – a fancy way of saying you get the right customers to the right agents the first time around. This can be done based on keywords used in your customer’s tweet or post. Additionally, messages can be prioritized based on topics and specific issues they need help with. Just imagine the impact of getting last week’s stranded passengers rebooked or as least communicated to individually on the day all those cancellations happened. Perhaps that seems out of reach, but with the right technology at the hands of skilled customer service agents, the chaos and frustration felt by passengers affected by the recent fallout in Turkey might have been dramatically reduced.
  2. Stay in-channel by collecting personally identifiable information (PII) securely on social channels. According to a 2014 study by Javelin Strategy & Research, over 30% of social network users post their birth date, 47% share their email address and another twelve percent their phone number online. The fact is consumers are already sharing this information, but your brand can allow them to do that without any risk. Social customer care agents need to collect this information from in order to avoid channel deflection and these days there are highly-secure ways to do it and reliably protect customer data. Using an encrypted, branded messaging environment your agents and customers can safely exchange information on social channels, which produces faster resolution times and happier customers, without channel hopping.

If your team and technology is in place to triage social volume peaks, you’re ready to empower your agents to say “yes” to solve any and all service issues that come in from passengers stuck, stranded and panicked. If the building blocks are in place, giving you agents the permission to think fast and be creative about resolving customer pains on social channels is a winning recipe to truly differentiate service and turn those IROP events into brand-building, community building chapters in your customer’s service journey.

For a closer look at how leading airlines are embracing customer service on social, check out this WestJet video.

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