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In November, blogger Andrew Hyde tried to fly standby on Frontier Airilnes. Instead, he got delayed for six hours and began a customer service Twitter feed for the brand and wrote an angry blog post about the company's customer service. Steve Snyder from Frontier's communications department responded, and I wrote a post about what Frontier was missing out on by not getting into the space from a customer service angle.

Our tech reporter Patricio Robles then wrote a follow up post about risk management in soclal media, and this week I spoke with Steve Snyder to get his side of the story, to see what Frontier is doing in the social media space, and the problems with assuming that companies need to use Twitter for customer service purposes.

What is your approach to handling customer complaints?

In terms of just general complaints — customer service complaints — I’m probably not the best person to answer that. Typically that goes on to the customer service side. Where I do tend to get involved is when you see complaints escalated either through social media or traditional media. One of the things we hear, when somebody has a complaint, they say they're going to publicize it and I'll generally get a heads up about that. Since corp communications at Frontier is the focal point for social media, in terms of outreach and monitoring.

When I notice something from a customer service standpoint that’s pretty glaring and merits a conversation as to what happened and how we can fix it, that's typically when I'll try to get invoved. Obviously if it's on Twitter or blogs or Facebook you'll see a lot of simple: “Frontier you suck." messages. There's not a lot we can do about that.

Specifically with Andrew Hyde’s complaint — there was an issue about whether he’d actually been communicated to about this change in standby policy. I wanted to make sure that we didn’t have an incorrect email address or maybe he didn't get anything at all. From that standpoint, I thought it made sense to reach out on behalf of our customer service folks and see if I could help solve a problem.

What is the breakdown of the public relations department and customer service at Frontier?

Honestly I don’t know how many people are in customer service for Frontier. Corporate communications is a staff of four. We’ve got a company of 5,000 employees that we communicate internally to. Certainly, there's the traditional media that we’re responsible to from an external standpoint.

In the last two to three years we're also taking on the social media aspect, which certainly brings a whole lot more to our table. Corporate communications has the expertize in social media, so we’ll take the lead in monitoring that.

Can social media damage a brand?

You have to look at the reaction as a whole. If the public perceives a brand to be completely unresponsive, you may have an issue. I think you see that if a company is putting out an effort, that can temper things.

I don’t think we’re ignoring social media at all. When customers have an issue, we absolutely want to hear from them. We don’t solve 100% of our customers’ issues, but I like to think that we at least make an effort to make that dialogue with them. I monitor social media on a daily basis, whether it’s Twitter, Facebook, or whatever. Andrew Hyde’s blog post was up for a day or two – the original blog post — before I saw it and reached out to him.

The fact that we don’t have a Twitter account specifically devoted to customer service shouldn’t be an indication that we’re ignoring it. We’ve looked at everything in terms of our business model right now.

Is it possible for brands to answer every customer service problem online?

There was a really interesting story with JetBlue. A gentleman wrote a long blog post when he was delayed by a JetBlue flight. He tweeted to @JetBlue. They have a very robust presence on Twitter. They tweeted back, and told him the issue. They were supposed to get into direct messaging, but this person then got upset about it. He tweeted to Southwest, Southwest responded, but also couldn’t get him on a flight. So the guy proceeds to go around in the gate holding area, where he interviewed people with the video function on his camera phone asking them if they knew about the company’s Twitter account, and that it wasn’t any good. Here’s an airline that has really worked hard to establish a social media presence, but because it wasn’t exactly up to his standards, they company ends up getting blamed for it.

As much as this can be a really good tool for being able to listen to the conversations that are going on out there, a lot of times, people who are heavily involved in this particular medium have a lot of unrealistic expectations for what it can and can't do. And it's starting to proliferate over into the media. One of the things I was a little dissapointed about in terms of your article is that it was kind of characterized that we were ignoring social media. I don't think we ignore it at all. I monitor conversations about Frontier on a daily basis.

Andrew Hyde's blog post was up for a day or two before I saw it and reached out to him. The fact that we don't have a Twitter account specifically dedicated to customer service doesn't mean that we are ignoring it. We've looked at everything in terms of our business model, in terms of how can we create the best value for our customers and how social media plays a role in that.

If you’re not in the space where people are complaining, how do you keep up with complaints there?

I think moving forward that will become a bigger and bigger concern as people get more comfortable with different areas of conversation and as their expectations continue to develop. There was a time when email was still considered a new form of communication. There was a time when the only way to formally complain to a company was through a letter. Absolutely I think it will be important to reach the customer where they are. I think a larger question to ask is — with all the different comnications going on right now — which ones are truly going to be sustainable and relevant a year from now?

Twitter has grown exponentially in the last few months. The question is, where does it go a year from now? A lot of companies want to look at the communications channels and see what is truly going to be something that has staying power. I certainly don’t have the expertise to say whether Twitter is a fad or not. But I don’t think you can blame a company for not jumping head first into this world, without at least making sure and asking.

Whether they’re saying it on Twitter now, or on a website before, it’s not a new concept. Companies have always had to deal with disgruntled customers.

Has social media changed the way customer relations work?

The concept of social media has given a lot more people a voice — a simple way to vent. Some of the same tried and true mantras of customer service still apply, it’s just been given a different voice.

When you can tell it’s just angry, typically we’re not going to reach out. Specifically in Andrew’s case, he laid out things pretty well. I saw there may be an issue where we were not communicating to him. In a situation like that, where there may be an obvious disconnect, we’re going to reach out. 
 
Is it important to reach out to brand evangelists and encourage them to talk about a company?

We’ve got a very loyal and very vocal following in Colorado. We want to turn them into brand evangelists. We found that in a lot of cases, your customers can be your best evangelists. When a family member or close friend says “we fly Frontier Airlines and you should too,” typically that carries a lot more weight than advertising.

We try to turn them into what you said, brand evangelists, as much as possible.

Can social media act as a bully to brands?

I’d like to think that your average person is a relatively reasonable person. Transparency eventually comes out one way or another. Typically the public is very vigilant. The right information gets out without the corporation.

There is a self-correcting mechanism. It’s up to the public to correct it. I think you see a lot of that with brand management as well, as long as your company is taking care of day to day business. 

If you’re making the vast majority of your customers happy on a day to day basis, you’re creating a bunch of positive experiences out there, I think those will tend to outnumber the ones who are unhappy.

Do you think your approach will change after this experience in particular?

It’s been interesting watching this phenomenon with Andrew. The fact of the matter is, he used social media to voice a complaint, we saw it and we responded to it. He didn’t particularly like the response. He doesn’t think we’re applying social media the right way. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion. 

I interjected in your article because I thought there were some issues missing. In other places, obviously there are going to be people who see it his way, but it’s been interesting to see people come to our defence. At the same time, if you’re not doing that on a daily basis, you’d see the opposite.

What is Frontier’s plan in the space moving forward?

Given where we are as a company, I can’t tell exactly what we’re going to look like three or four months from now when we come out of bankruptcy. Until that point, it comes back to looking at the resources we do have and taking a collaborative approach to issues like this. But also taking a very measured and segmented approach, especially when it comes to social media. This is a company and an organization that has gone through a lot of changes, and our resources are thin in a lot of areas.

It seems like you have a lot on your plate.

Frontier probably isn’t a great example of how to look at social media, because we’re in bankruptcy. Because we’re on the tail end of the process – there’s a lot of things that go into that process. We're being very careful about resources in general – having to do things a little bit differently to get through this process. It will be interesting to see where we are sixth months from now. Every employee has been tasked with the issue of customer service right now. Everybody kind of takes it upon themselves to be a customer services advocate.

Meghan Keane

Published 12 June, 2009 by Meghan Keane

Based in New York, Meghan Keane is US Editor of Econsultancy. You can follow her on Twitter: @keanesian.

721 more posts from this author

Comments (5)

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Andrew Hyde

Great Q/A!

The core issue that started this discussion was the limiting of benifits by Frontier.  They were going through very tough times (record fuel prices) and needed to make cuts.  What I took offence to, is that when they did this, they were not open and honest with their cutomers.  I, and many others were never alerted to these changes, even though we had tickets purchaced for upcoming trips. 

So avid customers like myself show up to find out about the changes when we are trying to use them.  No issue at all if it was messaged to the users.  The press release was issued on a Friday afternoon, a PR equivelant to 'let's hope nobody sees this.' http://flyfrontier.mediaroom.com/index.php?s=press_releases&item=1494

I think the work of the Frontier PR department is great, although I'm puzzled in why this is on their plate, and not Customer Relations (a department of 7-14 acording to one of their Customer Relations reps). If your company takes away benefits, wouldn't you expect and be ready for issues?  Where are they in this (for all the customers, not just myself that *gasp* blogged about it)?

over 7 years ago

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David Stevens

An interesting piece, thanks for that.

@andrew: "I think the work of the Frontier PR department is great, although I'm puzzled in why this is on their plate..."

I thought that was addressed:

SS: "When I notice something from a customer service standpoint that’s pretty glaring and merits a conversation as to what happened and how we can fix it, that's typically when I'll try to get involved."

D

over 7 years ago

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Dave Peck, Social Media Strategist at LSF Interactive

Meghan,

Great interview! I am the gentleman who wrote the "long long blog post about jet blue" and I take issues with Steve's comments.

1. Long? I had 664 words not including pretty pictures. This interview has over 1,800. If 664 is long, long. What is is this blog post?

2.I dont recall getting upset about direct messaging. That is not true at all. I sent JetBlue a DM back at their request, they never responded in over 60 mintues. Then I went out and asked @southwestair for help.

3. Steve, you must not of read the blog post, nor recall the emails you sent me on March 17th asking for my feedback and telling me "I will let you know what we end up deciding to do. Rest assured you have certainly had a voice in our thought process as we move toward engagement"

You stated in this interview:

Here’s an airline(jetblue) that has really worked hard to establish a social media "presence, but because it wasn’t exactly up to his standards, they company ends up getting blamed for it. "

As I stated in my orignal blog post and in our email conversations:

"Well here is where the problem begins and I want to make something clear. My post  is not with the flight being late. Nor the “fix engine light” they were getting. I want them to take alllllllllll the time they need to make sure the plane is working. Check it five times for all I care. I just want to get home in one piece. My post is the lack of communication, service  and the fact that I am disappointed by @JetBlue.  If your going to place your brand on a site like Twitter, you need to be ready to react in a timely manner. "

I disagree that my standards are too high. Do you really think a high standard by a a customer is to get from Texas to California in one piece and asking for a status update when we would leave? So, are you saying its wrong to "Blame the company for this?"

You have missed the point of my blog post. I just wanted to know what was going on. Why were we late? What was the issue. Is there a timeframe when we would be leaving?

4. You state "as much as this can be a really good tool for being able to listen to the conversations that are going on out there, a lot of times, people who are heavily involved in this particular medium have a lot of unrealistic expectations for what it can and can't do."

I dont think its unrealstic to have a conversation online be told "we will get right back to you with an update" and never hear back again and be upset. If you were on a custmer service phone call, at a help desk or online its all the same. It is customer service.

5. You state regarding me that "he interviewed people with the video function on his camera phone asking them if they knew about the company’s Twitter account, and that it wasn’t any good."

I reviewed the video again, I never asked if they new it was not any good. I never even said anything negative about the airline or their twitter feed. That is absolutely untrue

Dave

Dave

over 7 years ago

Avatar-blank-50x50

George

Hyde wrote: "The core issue that started this discussion was the limiting of benifits by Frontier.  They were going through very tough times (record fuel prices) and needed to make cuts.  What I took offence to, is that when they did this, they were not open and honest with their cutomers.  I, and many others were never alerted to these changes, even though we had tickets purchaced for upcoming trips. "

The far larger factor to changes in the standby policy is what Frontier's competitors do. Southwest Airlines is Frontier's primary competitor in their segment of the marketplace; Southwest had changed their policy to drop free standby. The reason this impacts the bottom line were discussed extensively in http://www.wallstreetfighter.com/2008/08/southwest-airlines-their-standby-policy-good-business-or-bad-service_04.html , and those same reasons would apply to Frontier.

Other Frontier customers have said that they were indeed notified of the change in standby policy in their E-Statements when the change was made (see comments in the earlier blog postings that Megan notes above). Hyde could have gone to Frontier's website to double-check policy. He could have called the airline to verify space on the flight for standby, and Frontier would have told him the policy that morning. Hyde did neither.

One aside: checking policies is something that all fliers should be doing often! The new increases in fuel prices will continue to squeeze the airlines; policies could become increasingly volitale.

Hyde is clearly angry; that's fine. What is troubling is when he publishes statements that are false or have false innuendo. One example is the content on Mr. Hyde's frontierfail.com website which says on its top banner:

"Frontier Airlines, my previous favorite airline is in a downward spiral, limiting features such as flying standby. It doesn’t seem like they are listening to customers… are they? Knock, knock, anyone here?"

As noted above, limiting free standby flight is about the bottom line, and their policy is actually a bit less restrictive than Southwest Airlines. Hyde notes on his blog that he was responsible for sending thousands of dollars of business to Southwest. That's puzzling, because Southwest forces flyers to upgrade to their "fly anywhere" fare to fly on an earlier flight. If Hyde is accurately representing his objections on the frontierfail.com banner, referring that business to Southwest is decidedly nonsensical.

Hyde also makes claims that are demonstrably false. On his blog, he claimed that there are no real costs to airlines to allow fliers to fly standby on earlier flights. In the comments of Patricio Robles's article http://econsultancy.com/blog/3987-social-media-and-risk-management, I enumerate four real costs in allowing customers to freely move to an earlier flight. Hyde has failed to address those comments or retract his claim that there are no costs. Such actions/failures to act make me tend to doubt all of Hyde's claims.

At best, Hyde's message about Frontier is confusing. At worst, he's an angry person who is reckless with his facts, innuendo, and actions. He sends out sporatic tweets on an account that beginning twitter users would reasonably assume is an "official" Frontier account. Hyde has never ever tweeted about Frontier's real twitter account @frontiersale. Hyde's use of that twitter account has little upside and could have huge downside for Frontier customers.

I also commented in the earlier Patricio Roble article about another powerful blogger, Jeremiah Oywang, dealt with a business charging for something he thought should be free. I won't repeat the story here, but it is striking to see the difference between how these two social media experts dealt with their customer service problems: a tale of two bloggers.

over 7 years ago

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Ultrasound Parts

Hi,

Really a great post about the challenges of Frontier Airlines with Social Media. From this post we can have a idea of different different values and parts of this frontier airlines like handlings customer complaints, breakdown of the public relations department and customer service at Frontier, whether or not social media damage a brand and many more other concepts. Thanks dude for such a good article posting.

Regards

John

over 7 years ago

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