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Once used only for marketing, Twitter, Facebook and other social channels have become important tools for customer service but in ways that are evolving. Andrew Hennigan reports

When social media first moved out of the early adopter niche in the late noughties, travel companies were quick to create accounts.

These were used mostly for marketing communications, to disseminate news, special offers and promotions.  However, the idea of using these channels to replace traditional phone and email based customer service gathered momentum in April 2010 when an Icelandic volcano grounded flights across Europe. For the first time, airlines like KLM and Brussels Airlines turned to social media to address the emergency.

“When Eyjafjallajökull erupted, air travel was disrupted for several days in a row,” says Claudia Tluk, Social Media Manager at Brussels Airlines. “Our call centre couldn’t handle the massive number of incoming calls so people started to ask us questions via Twitter and Facebook. From that moment we decided that we would answer our guest’s questions on the platform of their choice.”

Changing preferences

Since then social media has emerged as a key tool for delivering customer service, but the way it is used is changing. As customer service departments learn more they are adopting new rationales, new channels and also some new approaches that go beyond simply rebooking stranded passengers.

So while in 2010 customers turned to Twitter or Facebook when phone lines were swamped with callers, today social channels are the first port of call for customer service.

“Over the years we have seen our customers preferences change,” says Rob Hahn, manager for social care at SouthWest airlines. “Customers call us and write us, they email us and can now contact us through social media channels. Since we found that a subset of our customers prefer to contact us on social we have worked to meet this demand.”

Another factor driving the shift to social media customer service is purely economic.

Looking at our bottom line, social customer care is typically lower cost than telephone and email channels

Rob Hahn, manager for social care, SouthWest airlines

“Looking at our bottom line, social customer care is typically lower cost than telephone and email channels,” says Hahn.

One of the special challenges of social media customer service is the pace of evolution, both for existing sites and emerging new alternatives.

 “New social media channels keep on popping up, like Peach at the moment,” says Tluk. “We keep a close eye on every novelty and if we see potential in a new tool in which our guests are active we will definitely look into it. We need to be present where our guests want us to be.”

Changing with the times

It’s not just new channels. Established social media channels like Facebook are always changing and adding new features.

“We’re really looking forward to the new features that Facebook has planned for Messenger,” says Tluk. If our guests can book their flights within the Messenger tool and ask questions without leaving this environment, we can offer them an even more personal service than we do today.”

As social media sites integrate new options like ‘buy now’ buttons then they will enable customer service to offer more than support, integrating transactions directly into the customers preferred channel, whether it is Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or even something that is still the dream of some app developer.

Social media also brings new alternatives to customer service that are just not possible through other channels, taking advantage of smartphone features like geo-location and short-range communication. Already many companies push news about delays and changes through social media, but some of the most interesting new approaches come from airlines like Virgin America that exploit the company’s inflight WiFi service to keep social media customer service available during the flight.

“The combination of Wifi-enabled flights and a guest relations team which uses Facebook and Twitter to interact with guests enables our team to respond to any hiccups in the guest travel experience in real time,” says Dave Arnold, director of corporate communications at Virgin America.

Sometimes the interactions go beyond a reply to a post on Facebook. On one occasion a guest on board a Virgin America flight was having trouble purchasing a menu item with his credit card while inflight, explains Arnold.

“Our social media team came across a tweet about his difficulties, reached out to our operations centre which has the ability to message the flight crew directly. An inflight teammate then delivered a sandwich straight to the guest, free of charge”.

While this approach isn’t likely to become the standard way to order sandwiches, it does highlight that integrating social media with other channels of customer care leads to new ways to keep the customers happy.

Want to learn more about social media for customer care best practices? American Airlines, IHG and Conversocial will be sharing key insights at EyeforTravel's upcoming Social Media & Content Strategies for Travel conference, March 14-15, San Francisco

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