When Social Media Bites You on the ss


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I love the expression that nothing is ever so bad that you can’t make it worse. And nowhere is that more true than in the hyper speed and white heat of social media – a negative sentiment can get much worse very, very quickly. But equally tricky, as we will see, a positive sentiment can also go completely awry. Suddenly, a warm, fuzzy moment can become a searingly hot furnace of discomfort. Last summer, a couple of interactions by British Airways on Twitter completely turned me off. Whether consciously or unconsciously they probably turned off a lot of other “people like me”. They seem to have a strong social media strategy – so what went wrong in the execution?

Let me say first of all that I have no gripes with British Airways. I have travelled with them hundreds, if not thousands, of times over the years and I have experienced mainly good, but also bad and indifferent service. I can say with some comfort that they are nothing like Ryanair who have an unhealthy disregard of their customer in all spheres of their business – never has the expression “walking wallets” seemed so appropriate! However, last summer two poor conversations left me wondering if BA was one of those companies whose social service strategy was doing them more damage than good.

On the first occasion, Lizzie Armitstead, Olympic silver medallist and first British medallist in London arrived at the airport and was downgraded on a dream holiday straight after the Olympics. Bear in mind at this point that BA was a sponsor of Team GB. From the airport Lizzie tweeted her 69,923 followers and the damage was done. I guess 69,923 people like me thought “If an Olympics sponsor can do that to an Olympic hero what could they do to me?” Now, I am aware that due to airline economics downgrades happen on busy flights – that is just a “real-life” thing that probably happens every day, but on this occasion it was amplified by an influential Twitter poster. Clearly, an effective social media strategy is no solution to poor underlying process and treatment of customers but it could have made a bad situation a bit better.

Not long after that, Jodie Swallow, a professional triathlete and former double world triathlon champion tweeted a compliment to BA and her 9,043 followers; also asking about the baggage allowance for bikes. There is no warmth or engagement in BA’s response, and no attempt to give Jodie an alternative perspective. The tone of the thread then turned negative and the latter tweets from Jodie’s followers advised her, and all cyclists by implication, to change their favoured airline to Virgin. Eventually the BA tweeter posted a link to the company policy. Oh dear!

Customer service through social media is in it’s relative infancy and some companies have dived in without thinking things all the way through. Most consumer businesses that I know would rather set their feet on fire than appear on a consumer TV programme to answer questions on their service but, unbelievably, that is what they are subjecting themselves to by offering poorly thought through and executed social media service. You can’t undo what you or your people post on social media platforms – so it needs to be good, surely?

Some organisations have it just right but the majority are damaging their jealously protected brands with poorly executed social strategy. A recent survey by LiveOps found that 70% of customer complaints on Facebook and Twitter are ignored while those that were responded to took an average response time 2 days. This was against the customer expectation of 2 hours! And, perhaps most significantly but most disappointingly, a third of companies have deleted a tweet. These are not one to one transactions – they are visible experiences for potential customers and how potential customers make judgements on how you treat existing customers and rectify problems.

Social media is generally not a customer’s first port of call for service or support. They wouldn’t have a service phone conversation on speaker phone on a train so why would they want to shout about their problems on Twitter. They are either using social media for convenience or because they are at the end of their tether – either way we just need to make it easy for them.

So, what is needed for a successful social service strategy and implementation?

  • Resourcing – social media isn’t an isolated team of pioneers in a darkened room anymore – it needs to be part of the service DNA. Social media demand needs to be forecast, planned and scheduled like your call centre. Look at the Lizzie example – a high value customer needs you on a Sunday morning and you respond on Monday. It seems fair to assume that the social media team either didn’t work weekends or is skeleton staffed – is that good enough for a 24/7 business?
  • Empowering – your social service team can really wow customers if they are allowed to own the issue and do the right thing. Ritz Carlton employees are empowered to make decisions to spend up to US$2000 per day to enhance the customer experience. Imagine, how it would have felt despite the initial problems, if rather than tweeting a chargeable 0844 telephone number as support, a BA customer service advisor had met Lizzie at the gate and made up for letting her down – they had all the details from twitter to do that! Imagine how her next tweet might have looked if BA had responded quickly and decisively and made things right?
  • Engaging – in the Jody example, how about if the advisor had responded in the first instance “We think our whole pricing package is competitive and is designed to ensure that you benefit when you don’t travel with your bike. We are so glad that you enjoyed your flight and would love to welcome you back”. The customer has already decided to fly with you and presumably shopped around. The customer has already made a choice – engage with them on that. Don’t be embarrassed by your pricing and don’t hide behind guidelines or cut and paste phrases.
  • Openness – if you can’t write for the customer then don’t write at all. In the Jody example the advisor obviously wasn’t clear themself on the baggage policy. Why share that with the world without taking a moment out to check? Write clearly and succinctly for the customer, and if you must add a URL then be sure of it’s content before you send it. Remember – it’s written, it’s forever, it may go viral – be genuine and always do the right thing.

That’s how I might have tackled it. How do you think BA could have handled these conversations differently?

Dougie Cameron
Having worked in major blue chip organisations in both senior finance and customer service roles Dougie is described as a strategist, planner and implementer. In his own words he describes himself as "a reformed financier on the road to enlightenment". But most of all he is just plain frustrated by poor leadership and bad customer experiences. Dougie founded addzest consulting to help companies find their way to engage their teams to give customers better.


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