Is Your Customer Service Ready for Social Media? The Virgin America Twitter Campaign Case Study.


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As I consult with companies on their social media strategies, which often means discussing options when considering social media campaigns, I was ecstatic that I was recently chosen for a free flight on Virgin America’s Twitter campaign to help spread the word about their new Los Angeles and San Francisco to Toronto non-stop flights (click here for full disclosure). I am obviously excited to be able to participate in a social media campaign as a participant so that I can utilize this experience to better advise my clients in the future. Another plus for me is that it will make me physically inaccessible for awhile while I am in the air, which may help me get caught up on my book writing (yes, I am working on my 2nd book…and don’t even think about Skyping me while I’m flying while utilizing Virgin America’s free WiFi service!). Plus I get to create a LinkedIn event and network in a new city, physically meeting some great tweeps and LinkedIn connections that I have had various conversations with through social media.

A social media campaign, while seemingly looking like a smart move for any company, can come back to haunt you if your infrastructure is not prepared. Any campaign advertised through social media will suffer the fate of having its good and potentially not-so-good qualities broadcasted through the same social media channels by the same “Infleuncers.” Before you embark on that social media campaign, please look your company in the mirror and ask yourself: is your customer service ready for social media? And do you have a capable social media community manager in place to handle any potential negative issues?

Note: The purpose of this blog post is by no means to neither advertise nor criticize Virgin America. The objective is to share my experiences as a social media campaign participant to help educate businesses on the potential risks associated with using social media marketing as well as the importance of having a capable social media community manager in place to help navigate any potential negative issues that arise.

So here’s my story: Virgin America decided to micro-target a select number of people to receive these free tickets in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Toronto. Rather than open up the campaign to all, they utilized a 3rd party service, Klout, to invite only those people that Virgin America and Klout felt were “Influencers.” To be honest with you, there was a lot of public outcry on Twitter as to why certain people were picked and others weren’t, an obvious negative side-effect of any such campaign. But by utilizing a 3rd party service (Klout), Virgin America could shield itself from any potential public outcry, and Klout themselves wrote a blog post clearly explaining the methodology of how Klout picked “Influencers” for the Virgin America campaign to show that they had a logical and impartial system for this. Case closed, and although there still are some disgruntled tweeps, all in all it was an interesting concept that certainly got the Twitter communities of Toronto, San Francisco and Los Angeles tweeting and blogging about Virgin America! At this point I give thumbs up to the campaign, as I think using a respected and impartial 3rd party like Klout was a clever idea. I can see more companies utilizing Klout similarly in the future.

The problem, however, is regarding the logistics of how the campaign works. Everyone who received the email from Klout congratulating them had to select a link to go to a site where their “campaign code” was revealed. This promotional code was to be entered on the Virgin America website and tickets bought directly from there online. Fine. Since the email said that tickets were available on a first-come first-serve basis, I decided to quickly pick a date in July or August where there was a social media-related event going on in Toronto that I could both learn from and network at. My favorite source of social media events information at the moment is Mashable’s 25+ Upcoming Social Media & Tech Events, and voila! There I found the only social media-related event in Toronto in this time period: Cross Media TO. I decided to pick optimum flights that would allow me to attend this event as well as spend a day Windmill Networking in Toronto. But although the correct prices displayed on the flights I wanted to choose, I couldn’t choose them. Strange, I thought. Better call up Virgin to see what the scoop is. And this is where the saga begins… Note, if I was able to successfully book my tickets online at that point in time, my blog post would have ended here…

So I called Virgin America. Everyone I will be referring to after this I label “customer service representatives,” although internally they may be considered reservations desk employees. Just like consumers in social media don’t care what internal department a Facebook Page is representing, if a company only has one toll-free number on their corporate website it will be assumed that that is their customer service number.

Just like most American corporate customer service toll-free numbers, it was not easy to get a live person on the phone. I wanted to buy tickets but I wanted help with my reservation, which I didn’t have yet, so which department should I speak with? Could an automated system handle my question? Probably not. I just kept pressing zero until I found the magical pipe music and then I was in line waiting for the next operator. Unfortunately, the customer service representative that I spoke with couldn’t help me. In fact, he thought it was an issue with my browser, as I was using Safari (side note: why are Mac users always picked on…Safari works on 100% of the sites I use!). So I boot up Firefox and again, I couldn’t choose the specific flights that I wanted. Strange the operator thought. He asked me to give him the promotional code, and after he tried it on the Virgin America computers he realized it didn’t work either! So it wasn’t a browser issue after all. But because “Headquarters” was closed they would look into the issue and get back to me in the next 24 hours. He did reserve the seats for me, but here’s the Catch 22:

  • Virgin America only allows you to book tickets with a promotional code directly by the consumer entering it online. Customer service representatives could not book these tickets on my behalf.
  • The Virgin America website, on the other hand, would not allow me to book the flight that I wanted.

In other words, my promised ticket was out there in no man’s land…

It took a few more phone calls, but finally the situation was rectified. An interesting side-note is that no customer service representative that I spoke to was familiar with the Twitter campaign to begin with. This made it more difficult to explain to each person I spoke to why I got this special promotional campaign and why I claimed that the price should be next to free. After all, how many customer service professionals are on Twitter?

There is no need to go into the details here as to how the situation was rectified, as this could have happened to any company. But this story took an interesting turn after I dropped a hint to one of my Toronto tweeps on Twitter about the frustration that I was having. Guess what? The Virgin America Twitter Account quickly sent me a Direct Message and asked for any feedback that I have. As I wrote in how to deal with an angry customer on Twitter, just knowing that they were listening and wanted to hear my feedback was sufficient to appease me.

Virgin America was listening, and in fact, it help transformed this blog post into a positive feeling towards Virgin America because of it. Here’s what happened:

  • The Virgin America Twitter account contacted me asking for my feedback in a very humble way.
  • They then asked me to give them detailed feedback by providing me the Twitter manager’s email address. This actually was a very personable approach which made me feel like I was talking to a person, not a company.
  • The Twitter representative then became the interface between me and Virgin America. She took the responsibility to contact individuals spread out across a few departments and get back to me with exactly what happened. There was ownership and responsibility, and because of the professional communication and excellent response that happened all because of Twitter, I ended up completely revising this post and deleting out the gory details of what happened with customer service. It just didn’t feel right to do anymore.

In fact, Virgin America told me that it was people like myself who tweeted about our frustration that actually helped them gain visibility into the situation and help resolve this issue quickly. A great example of how social media can help customer service.

As Americans get more active on social media and both positive and negative customer experiences become more public, companies will realize that any social media marketing activities need to be counter-balanced with fixing the way that they deal with these issues and, at the end of the day, treat their customers. Any consumer can become an “Influencer” by having a bad experience and having their tweet go viral, so companies need to be prepared for the “social media effect” on the front-end with the organization that deals with customer complaints: Customer Service. It also helps to have social media community managers who understand their business operations and have access to key management throughout their company to help quickly resolve these issues where the conversations start: in social media. In fact, in this case study, the positive actions of that social media community manager who managed the Twitter account more than compensated for the negative customer service issues that I faced.

I will continue to blog about the hopefully good as well as the potentially not-so-good regarding this social media campaign so as to make the experience as educational as possible for all, but now that my tickets have been reserved and positive communication has been achieved, I am confident that there won’t be any other surprises going forward.

Have you had similar experiences in social media campaigns or situations where companies tried to engage in social media but their customer service truly wasn’t prepared for whatever reason? What about experiences where the social media community manager took control and helped you out like I was helped? Please share your experiences, both good and bad, with us!

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Republished with author's permission from original post.


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