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Every ash cloud has a silver lining

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Dee Roche explores what lessons have been learned for social media and customer service on the anniversary of the ash cloud disruption. 

3rd May 2011
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A year has passed since the volcanic eruption in south Iceland grounded thousands of flights and left millions of passengers stranded, and some key lessons have been learned on how brands can better use social media.

During the eruption more than 75% of European airspace was closed for a week, affecting more than 90,000 flights and 10 million passengers. While the circumstances were beyond the control of the airlines, the main issue for the 100,000 stranded Britons was the lack of information coming through.
 
In tense, time-sensitive circumstances, consumers are increasingly turning to social media for real-time information and advice. But too many airlines were not quick enough to respond to this need last April.
 
In the seven days when most of Europe’s largest airlines were grounded, there were more than 55,000 mentions on Twitter of #ashtag, as people tried to source information about flights, accommodation and up-to-date news of their situation.
 
The rapidly evolving situation meant that the flight information on static websites quickly became obsolete. This led to airlines following customer demand and turning to social media – some for the first time - to update their customers. Although this was a struggle for many, the crisis did highlight three organisations - KLM, British Airways (BA) and the European Organisation for the Safety of Air Navigation (Eurocontrol) - that excelled at updating their customers via social media channels.
 
These companies not only provided users with flight status updates, but also engaged in public conversations and looked to make the information to common questions easily available.
 
Managing your reputation online
 
KLM sent out regular Twitter updates filled with advice on re-booking, information about local areas and links to news stories, and dedicated time to @reply many individuals about customer questions, comments and concerns. KLM also created a bespoke ‘Volcanic Eruption’ Q&A sidebar on its Facebook page and had official representatives available to respond to questions continuously.
 
Through clear planning and understanding of the various social media platforms, KLM was able not only to update a large number of customers and people affected by the ash cloud, but also grow its number of followers by more than 4,000 on Twitter in that one week.
 
BA targeted a different user base by posting a number of videos from Willie Walsh, CEO of British Airways, on YouTube. These were done to reassure customers that the airline was doing everything possible to minimise disruption. BA also had representatives on all of its official social media channels responding to direct questions in real time.
 
Eurocontrol, the European air safety organisation, was the obvious go-to point for many people affected by the ash cloud. The company excelled by posting maps of where the ash cloud was coming from and heading towards, and by highlighting the likely implications this may have on air travel. The organisation also provided constant information on Facebook, Twitter and through relevant aviation groups on Linkedin as soon as it received any news or updates.
 
Throughout the duration of the crisis Eurocontrol grew its Twitter followers nearly 2,100% from 350 to 7,300 and its Facebook fans rose by 50% from 2,000 to 3,000.
Not only did these three companies show their competences in managing a crisis, but the organised way the information was provided and questions responded to has had a very positive effect on the perceptions of these brands.
 
The explosion in social media has created a critical tipping point with organisations struggling to cope with the ‘noise’ and potential damage it can create, but for KLM, BA and Eurocontrol the ash cloud has done them no harm. It has in effect raised their profiles on the various social media platforms, gained them followers and cemented their position as a trusted travel company and provided a point of differentiation within a highly competitive market.
 
Learning the lessons
 
With recent research suggesting that as much as 34% of all customers use social media to rant or rave about a product or service, it is essential that all companies have a strong presence across the different social media channels.
 
Social media represents a wealth of opportunity to shape customers relationships with airlines and travel agents, and this is most effectively achieved when firms integrate it with their other service channels. This ensures that all enquiries are responded to in a timely manner by dedicated customer service staff, and that consumers get access to the same information no matter which channel they use. This is a view shared by Gartner, who claim that by 2013 at least 35% of customer service centres will integrate some form of community and social capabilities.
 
For the majority of companies, it’s not practical or cost effective to have dedicated agents directly engaging with consumers one-to-one via social media, and this should only ever be undertaken at times of crisis.
 
Organisations need the tools and insight to harness its full potential as a service channel. By integrating a firm’s web self-service solution into their Facebook page it will not only deflect potential complaints before they are amplified but also allow them to get a valuable understanding of the needs of their Facebook followers.

Dee Roche is European marketing director at Eptica,

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