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.