In the first of a two-part article Pamela Whitby hears that as social media matures, integration across the business is a logical next step

American Airlines is no stranger to social media. The airline first started using social back in 2011 but back then social channels were handled by a PR agency. The airline quickly recognised that in order to resolve customer service queries effectively, they needed to bring social in house. By 2012 American was answering customer service queries between 6 am and midnight, seven days a week but even that wasn’t enough. Come January 2013, Twitter and Facebook had become 24/7 customer service channels for the airline. Today the team has grown from two to 17 and the aim is to respond to tweets within 15 minutes.

“We are pretty sophisticated in social now and have good support from our stakeholders. Our team has matured and as our experience in social has deepened we are better equipped to react and respond to crises more intuitively,” says Jonathan Pierce Director, Social Communications, American Airlines.

So does that mean, it is time for the social team to rest on its laurels. Absolutely not! While American’s relationship with social media has undoubtedly matured, when it comes to integrating social channels across the business, Pierce admits they are just out the starting blocks. “We are making moves but there is still a long way to go,” he says.

According to Pierce what American has shown to date is that communicating on social is important to customers. “Social is not just a Facebook page but a discipline and it is changing the way customers do business with us,” he says, stressing that this has an impact across the entire business and something that all stakeholders now understand.

It achieved this by sharing insights and data and customer feedback, with other business units and also by providing training. On top of that it has actively sought to share stories about all aspects of the business via social media. In other words, social is not just about marketing and PR announcements. “We have been at pains to represent the brand at all levels,” says Pierce.

Dealing with legacy

American’s social strategy is intently focused on listening to the customer and building relationships. “Recognising the customer that comes to our Twitter feed and being able to say ‘Welcome Back’ is really important and is something we are actively working on behind the scenes,” explains Pierce.

That said, the firm is just starting to join the dots between the frequent flier relationship and the social media relationship. This is stage 1 of a long process, says Pierce, but the vision is to be able to recognise loyal customers over social media and represent knowledge in the conversation. “Social is about real people here having a real conversation and we want people to feel important and valued. The relationship is not just about a tweet,” he says. “We need to know, for example, that a customer is top tier in our loyalty programme. Then we will talk to them differently and position ourselves differently.” 

To achieve this, the airline needs proprietary customer information from the frequent flier programme to be connected to social media. Social media is about building relationships but to do that effectively you need to know who the customer is. That requires data, which as EyeforTravel’s latest research shows, is becoming social media’s unique selling point as user bases can be segmented on a granular level. “We’ve started to connect the dots but I couldn’t possibly give a timeline as to how far off we are,” says Pierce. As with all established travel brands, the challenge is one of integrating legacy systems (its frequent flier database is one of these) with new emerging channels. “There is considerable work to do to connect those two and yes we are having conversations and are making progress. The potential is huge but we are just starting,” he says.

American’s core business is its frequent flier programme and for this reason it needs to be able to recognise those customers in the social channel, in the same way it does at the airport, on the brand website or in the call centre.

Step by step

As a first step, American has built an in house tool to help integrate some aspects of customer information with social media. For example putting a customer’s frequent flier status next to the Twitter handle allows the airline to become familiar with loyal customers. “This in house tool for social customer service allows us to be a lot more efficient,” says Pierce, explaining that previous off the shelf tools required staff to toggle between three to five different applications. “When you have a team of 17 people working 24/7 and with multiple agents working a feed you need very different functionality for response management than if you were a team of just two,” says Pierce. This is thrown into sharp relief in a weather crisis like the recent ice storm that beset parts of the US, putting the whole operation under strain. At times like this interactions on social increase significantly.

Of course, whether to outsource or keep a technology development in house depends very much on the business and there are pros and cons for each. “You need to be clear about what you need and what you need it for,” says Pierce. For example, American outsources its analytics and data measurement function, but decided to insource its customer service tool because it needed to talk to so many proprietary systems.

In Part 2 tomorrow Pierce, who will be speaking in San Francisco (March 17-18) at Social Media & Mobile Strategies for Travel 2014, shares insights into the specific barriers to integration. 

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