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Last week, our US Editor, Meghan Keane, wrote about Andrew Hyde. Hyde is a blogger and self-described "startup enthusiast".

A bad experience with Frontier Airlines has apparently turned him into the internet's most vocal critic of the company. He set up @frontierair on Twitter and has even created a dedicated website to aggregate complaints about the airline. According to Hyde, Frontier Airlines is ignoring social media, and that's a bad thing.

Whether you believe that Hyde's complaints are valid or that he's creating a lot of drama for no good reason, such a case study is worthy of discussion and debate. After all, before the advent of the internet, consumers had a much steeper mountain to climb in voicing their complaints publicly as Hyde has.

In this case, I made a few interesting observations:

  • Hyde's post, Frontier Airlines Customer Service: “The PR Department Would Like You to Shut Up”, has only been retweeted 7 times according to the tracker on his site.
  • As I write this, the Econsultancy post about Hyde and Frontier Airlines has received more comments than did Hyde's post about how he felt Frontier Air was slighting him and social media.
  • Even though @andrewhyde has nearly 8,000 followers, his @frontierair account only has slightly more than 250.
  • Hyde's Frontier Airlines complaint aggregation site, frontierfail.com, has an Alexa traffic rank of 14,542,189, only shows 1,518 visits in November 2008 and doesn't even register with Quantcast.
  • Twitter Search shows very little chatter for the phrases "frontier air" and "frontierair".
  • Ironically most of the comments left here on Econsultancy have been critical of Hyde, not Frontier Airlines.

What does this mean? Well, there are two ways to evaluate the situation.

From a pure customer service and PR perspective, Hyde looks like a problem that needs to be addressed. Agree with him or not, he's pretty upset about his experience with Frontier Air and is investing a lot of time and energy in hounding Frontier Air. No good brand manager likes to see that former customer has been turned into a vocal critic who is building negative websites, hijacking the company's presence on popular websites, etc. The fact that a single unhappy consumer can do all this is definitely something brands should be cognizant of.

Yet from a risk management standpoint, Hyde is clearly no threat to the Frontier Airlines brand. For all of his efforts and his apparent social media prolificacy, it's clear that his complaints are not reaching a wide enough audience to realistically have any impact on Frontier. From his website to his Twitter account, Hyde's assault on Frontier Airlines may look bloody but there are very few soldiers on the field.

Furthermore, as evidenced by the fact that many of the comments seen here on Econsultancy questioned the validity of Hyde's complaints, it's clear that social media is a two-way street: it's easy to bash a brand but when others feel that the bashing isn't deserved, the basher can become the bashed. All without the involvement of the brand itself.

These observations lead me to the conclusion that brands need to incorporate some sort of risk management analysis into the social media decision-making matrix. Right now, far too many brands are being lulled into believing that good social media means participating in every conversation, responding to every criticism, trying to make every customer happy. The notion is that consumers are now in control and you have to do what they say. Or else.

But while the internet and social media are empowering consumers, that doesn't mean that every vocal critic is a threat to the brand or deserving of the damage control treatment. Brands need to be strategic and logical when it comes to how they react to social media criticism.

Here are a few questions brands would be wise to ask themselves when they find themselves in a position like Frontier Airlines:

  • How much reach is the criticism receiving? In this case, it's pretty clear that as vocal as Hyde is, he isn't exactly speaking to a substantial audience.
  • Is the criticism deserved? Hyde was upset that Frontier changed its standby policy without telling him. But commenters defending Frontier have pointed out that the airline did provide notice and that Frontier's policy is not substantially different from that of the airline Hyde apparently switched to.
  • Have you made an effort to respond reasonably? One of the comments left here on Econsultancy was from Steve Snyder of Frontier Airlines. He explained that Frontier does monitor social media outlets and tried to resolve the situation with Hyde. Furthermore, in explaining its decision to not provide customer service through Twitter as Hyde had 'demanded', Snyder was admirably forthcoming: given its business model and the economic challenges it faces, Frontier feels its investments in customer service are better made elsewhere.
  • What are your customers looking for? Frontier is a low-cost carrier. It competes on price, not frills. You can probably pick any low-cost carrier and find plenty of horror stories, many exaggerated. Bottom line: the key factor driving a purchasing decision in Frontier's market is price, not what you, I or Hyde says. In the aggregate, of course, a bad reputation can be very problematic, but typically a single disgruntled former customer isn't going to tip the scale in a price sensitive market. Case in point: Wal-Mart. For all of the criticism it has received over the years from consumers and media alike on a variety of important topics from hiring practices to overseas labor, it's thriving.

Armed with answers to questions like those above, brands can evaluate what sort of risk a situation poses. That will determine what sort of investment in a response is appropriate. In this case, since Hyde's complaints are reaching what amounts to an inconsequential audience of questionable receptiveness and the complaints themselves are of questionable validity, Hyde really isn't a risk to Frontier Airlines and the company made a wise decision to ignore him after it became clear that reasonable efforts to placate him weren't going anywhere.

As Snyder wrote in his comment, "sometimes you can't completely satisfy everybody".

In the final analysis, managing social media is a lot like managing an investment portfolio. If you have a $100m portfolio, you'd be foolish to overmanage the risk on a $5,000 position to the detriment of your other, larger positions. Companies should keep this in mind when it comes to managing the portfolio that is their brand, as oftentimes the most critical voices in the social mediasphere are those $5,000 positions.

Photo credit: octoberdog via Flickr.

Patricio Robles

Published 9 June, 2009 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

2381 more posts from this author

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Tom Ollerton

I think this is blog brings up some interesting points and I applaud its "brands don't just dive in attitude" and the investment portfolio analogy is a good one.

However I think also that there are some interesting but less apparent issues not discussed here. Firstly Hyde was a brand ambassador for a low-cost airline - not really sticky stuff and http://frontierfail.com/ is about as visually appealing as a "flight delayed" notice.

I think this would have been a very different story had it been a little girl missing her birthday party or someone had died as a result of the airlines actions. In reality it's a social media story about an airline messing someone around a bit.

I hope the Public Vs The Man on social media can come up with some more engaging stories than this if we are to work together to harness the influence social media.

Tom Ollerton

ww.ale2.co.uk

about 7 years ago

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Joseph Fiore

Thank-you for advancing this discussion.  Often, this sideline analysis is the kind of balance a social media situation like this needs.  If we are talking purely about mitigating risk, the one point I would emphasize is that every situation is unique, and I wouldn't want the takeaway from this post to be that ignoring a customer's online complaints is ever a good thing.  As long as people use the Internet to scour the best travel deals, there will always be some ratio of reputation risk, regardless of metrics or analysis that might prove a low probability of stumbling onto such incidents.

While I can appreciate the cents-able approach to managing social media situations, ultimately it comes back to managing one's own and averting reputation loss.  The idea of cinching your saddle and taking the high road only when an incident is gaining reach and momentum doesn't sit particularly well, and I would treat each case of online risk seriously, regardless of the situation.  If anything, I've seen such situations sway in a completely different direction, sometimes months or even years after the fact, simply because posts linger and a few more distressed opinions arrived who may have experienced the same.

IMHO, companies would be best served to listen, and treat every case in a manner where they feel they have exhausted every avenue to attain a positive outcome.

Joseph

@RepuTrack

about 7 years ago

Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles, Tech Reporter at Econsultancy

Joseph,

You make some good points. From where I sit it seems that Frontier Airlines has tried to resolve the matter but is not going to be able to please Hyde.

"Managing risk" doesn't mean "eliminating risk" and for Frontier, it's pretty clear that investing another minute of time in trying to deal with Hyde is a waste of company resources.

dj,

Thanks. I think when evaluating the potential threat posed by Hyde, you have to look at the metrics. His blog posts really haven't created a massive uprising, his frontierfail.com website has no traffic of note and @frontierair is at best reaching a couple hundred people. For all of Hyde's efforts, it's pretty clear that his message isn't resonating with people. Given that Frontier tried unsuccessfully to handle the situation when it became aware of his complaints, there's nothing more the company should do in my opinion.

I don't think that many consumers are searching for "Customer Service Fail" when making an airline purchasing decision and I'd honestly be surprised if any article - pro or con - about Hyde's experience has really impacted a purchasing decision. Let's face it: his experience (being told he couldn't fly standby for free on a cheap ticket) isn't exactly something a lot of people are going to find outrageous. Most people accept that if you want first-class flexibility, you have to pay first-class prices when it comes to air travel.

about 7 years ago

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Andrew Hyde

Great post. 

I just saw all the great comments on the first post, will publish a video to resond and continue the conversation.

@Patricio you say "Given that Frontier tried unsuccessfully to handle the situation when it became aware of his complaints, there's nothing more the company should do in my opinion."  The PR department did reach out to say 'we are working on our messaging' but never tried to handle the situation (applogise or do as little as offer a drink ticket).

about 7 years ago

Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles, Tech Reporter at Econsultancy

Andrew,

Thanks. For what it's worth, I think it's great that the internet gives everyone the ability to voice their complaints freely as you have done. Brands do need to be on top of this stuff.

I guess my only question now is what you expect to get out of the situation at this point. Frontier tried to resolve the issue as it felt appropriate; you wanted more than it was willing to provide. If it doesn't feel that you're entitled to an apology or free drink, c'est la vie. "Handling the situation" does not meant that the consumer always walks away with what he or she wanted.

While I can respect that your experience was troubling to you, it's not like your experience was egregious. From what I see, Frontier changed its standby terms, you missed the email in which the change was announced and you didn't like the fact that Frontier wasn't willing to let you get on an earlier flight at no additional cost. Most low-cost carriers have similar standby policies and as much as I hate to say it, your personal inconvenience at the airport due to a misunderstanding of policy is not really deserving of public outcry and it's not an indictment of Frontier Airlines either. It's not as if there's any evidence that Frontier is engaged in some sort of systematic consumer abuse.

Just as brands have to decide when to draw the line and accept that they can't please anybody, consumer critics should do the same. It seems to me that you're investing far more time in this than it's worth, especially given that you'd be satisfied with an apology or free beer.

about 7 years ago

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G

Several comments and a few questions:

Over last weekend, Jeremiah Owyang, a social networking expert for Forrester Research, had a customer service problem at a hotel. He tweeted about the problem ( http://twitter.com/jowyang/statuses/2078117024 ) and then wrote a blog entry about it: http://www.web-strategist.com/blog/2009/06/08/hotels-dont-charge-us-for-internet-use/ .

Jeremiah was clearly unhappy, but he acted professionally. His tweet said he would avoid staying at this hotel in the future, but that was the end of his personal actions against the hotel. He did write a blog entry explaining, from his point of view, why it was a poor business decision for hotels to charge for WiFi access. He updated his blog posting to give a list of what chains never, sometimes, and always charge for WiFi access.

This is a tale of two powerful bloggers -- both with thousands of followers. The biggest difference I see is that one realized there are limitations to what he can do, and he stayed within those limits. Jeremaih disagreed with the business's policy, but he did nothing malicious. He did not go create a sandiegohiltonfail.com website. And he was quite clear that other hotels had exactly the same business policies that he didn't like. I was inspired by Jeremiah's actions.

----------

When the "Frontier Airline's customer service fail" article appeared on this blog, Andrew promptly tweeted about it to his 7,969 followers ( http://twitter.com/andrewhyde/statuses/2047378493 ). This time, when the article is a bit more forgiving of Frontier and a bit more questioning of Mr. Hyde's motives, no tweet announced the new blog posting. Why?

(Warning: it is possible that I missed the tweet, but I did check twice.)

Andrew: you have told us about the thousands of dollars of business that you sent to Southwest, but you don't explain why. The irony is that Southwest has a very similar -- if not more restrictive -- standby policy than Frontier.

Southwest is Frontier's primary rival. It makes sense that both would have similar standby policies, and it would definitely hurt Frontier's bottom line to allow free standby. For a clear explanation, please read the webpage http://www.wallstreetfighter.com/2008/08/southwest-airlines-their-standby-policy-good-business-or-bad-service_04.html

On your blog, you insisted on the fact that there is no cost for airlines to fly passengers standby on an earlier flight. I'm no expert, but I do notice several costs:

1. Any baggage checked must be located from storage and moved to the earlier flight. Even if you personally never check baggage, the other passenger who gets on the flight because he overhears you were given free standby might have checked bags.

2. Even if the passenger says that they checked no luggage, 9/11 rules require that the airline independently verify that fact. (Hopefully, this is an inexpensive operation.)

3. The arrival of several standby passengers near the end of boarding may alter the load and trim of the aircraft. If that operation has already been done, it might have to be repeated. This could possibly delay the departure of the flight.

4. Aircraft carry minimial amounts of fuel beyond the safety margins needed for a particular flight, especially if the marginal cost for fuel is higher than average in the current city. If several passengers arrive and board standby near the end of boarding, the flight may no longer have sufficient fuel for the safety margins and the crew will have to request more fuel. This operation may result in added cost, flight delay, or both.

There are indeed added costs that an airline must absorb for allowing free standby flight on earlier flights.

When you were trying to get on that first flight, did you ever threaten the Frontier counter staff that you might complain loudly on the Internet? If you did, did you also tell them that such messages would go out to thousands of people?

about 7 years ago

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David Phillips

You raise the issue of risk management which is something that Philip Young and I explore in some depth in the new CIPR/Kogan Page book 'Online Public Relations'.

The basis of the chapter is covered in my blog here.

There are two benefits one gets from risk management. The first is a reduction in time taken up in issues and crisis management and the second is enhanced reputation because of less adverse commentry.

Risk management is not rocket science (but keeps rockets on track) and is well developed in many areas of management.

Perhaps its time it migrated to PR as well.

about 7 years ago

Michelle Goodall

Michelle Goodall, Online PR/Social Media Consultant at EconsultancySmall Business Multi-user

Hi David,

Thanks for your comments and congratulations on the new book, I've heard good things about it - look forward to getting my signed copy soon ;-)

Michelle

about 7 years ago

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