I am teaching service ops this quarter and we are just about to the module on service recovery. As I have noted in the past, this is one of the things that has really changed in the years I have taught this course. Why delays happen in call centers or smart ways of organizing resources has largely been static. But how people complain and how firms deal with those complaints has changed over time. Just in time for next week’s class, we have two new articles on how social media is impacting the service recovery process. First, up is the Wall Street Journal on Delta Airlines (The Airlines’ Squeaky Wheels Turn to Twitter, Oct 26). Delta apparently pays people to read Twitter and Facebook all day.
A computer program searches for terms like “Delta sucks.” Beside the wall-mounted monitors showing Delta mentions on Twitter and other sites are screens showing how Delta’s flights are operating. When bad weather creates delays and missed connections, the tweets fly, and the Delta agents can respond with specific information about the causes of delays. Some customers tweet from 35,000 feet using on-board Wi-Fi, and the social-media customer service agents can make sure they have been rebooked before they land.
“You are there with their emotions, good or bad,” said Allison Ausband, vice president of reservation sales and customer care. The advantage to the airline: Better to “resolve problems at first contact rather than letting them fume,” she said.
On the one hand, this seems very positive. Examples of airlines proactively trying to improve customer service have been few and far between in recent years. On the other hand, Delta is creating two levels of customer service, one for those willing to whine in public and another for those without a Twitter account.
Delta said it sees social media channels like Twitter and Facebook as a chance to offer better customer service. So it created a channel called @DeltaAssist and told workers in the social-media lab to offer customers quick fixes, such as rebookings and reimbursements. Sometimes that means even waiving rules that consumers typically find unbendable at airlines. …
Ultimately the company says it hopes all its customer-service agents will be able to solve problems quickly rather than ask customers to fill out forms and wait weeks for by-the-book resolution.
I am not convinced that this is a good outcome. At one level it is encouraging more people to let the airline know when it service goes wrong. To the extent that people find it easier to Tweet or update their Facebook status than call or write a letter, this gives the airline a much better view of how they are doing. That generally seems positive. However, it is also encouraging customers to be very aggressive in public. If there is ever a reason to over-react, it is to squeeze a little more out of Delta. Further, as it becomes known that the social media folks are more generous, it is putting their call center agents in an untenable position. If the public knows that rules can be broken, how can you force a call center agent to stick to rules?
If Delta is playing defense, then hoteliers are playing offense, going after TripAdvisor for negative reviews (Hoteliers Look to Shield Themselves From Dishonest Online Reviews, Oct 25, New York Times). There are 35 million hotel reviews on the site and not all of them are kind. Indeed, some are outlandishly negative.
Although TripAdvisor does allow property owners to post responses to reviews, some hoteliers want the site to monitor comments more actively and take action when managers express concerns, especially when reviews border on libel.
As TripAdvisor’s influences grow, these tensions reveal how the free-for-all of online customer feedback differs from an era of professional reviewers operating under clearer guidelines.
“The world of the Internet and particularly social media has pretty much outstripped ethical guidelines, and some legal ones as well,” said Chris Emmins, a founder of KwikChex, a British reputation management company that is seeking to organize a lawsuit against TripAdvisor on behalf of its clients.
This seems a tough line to walk. TripAdvisor can be a very handy tool for those planning a vacation. I know that as a user I value the candid reviews one can find on the site. But there are extreme examples of people posting over-the-top negative comments. (The example given in the article involves a restaurant owner actively welcoming a prostitute into his establishment.) TripAdvisor needs to offer an open flow of information to build its credibility but trashing a firm based on undocumented hearsay is hardly a good thing.
A commentator over on Slate believes that efforts to stifle TripAdvisor are misplaced. Basically, the argument goes, people look at the totality of reviews and will overlook one crackpot posting if it does not reflect the overall consensus. Thus if one is generally a good business that takes care of its clientele, the odd review or two will do no harm. There may be some truth to that, but I think that overlooks how important TripAdvisor can be to small and young businesses. Not sweating one outrageous review is an attitude that might work for the Four Seasons but I am not sure it makes sense for a new, independent hotel. If there is a paucity of reviews, one stinker could really hurt.