Social Media Customer Service Strategies for Travel Brands
Not long ago, a customer frustrated with the service at a hotel or airline would take their complaint to a check-in desk or toll-free number. The issue could be resolved with no one but the brand and the individual knowing about it. If the issue wasn’t fixed, the biggest risk to the brand was the loss of a customer, and perhaps the handful of people who the customer told about his or her negative experience.
Those seem like the good old days from the perspective of today’s marketers. In 2015, social media has transformed the relationship of customer and hospitality brand, raising the stakes in a number of ways. Customers now live tweet their flight delays or post photos on Instagram of maintenance issues at their hotels and instantly reach thousands of people. Bad word of mouth can spread faster and farther than ever before.
As social media has moved customer service into the public eye, travelers’ expectations have risen as well, as they come to expect personal assistance from airlines and hotels more quickly than ever. The volume of social media interactions has also escalated. In Q2 of 2015 alone, airlines received more than 357,000 questions via Twitter and almost 85,000 questions via Facebook, according to Socialbakers.
But as the world’s major hospitality companies have scrambled to meet these challenges, they have dedicated as much, if not more, of their resources toward tapping into the brand-boosting opportunities presented by social media. Travel brands are expanding their social care teams, moving into new platforms (particularly mobile and social messaging), and finding creative ways to not just solve problems, but to make a good experience great and let their followers know about it.
Introduction: Customers turn to social
The speed and personal touch offered by social media has made it an increasingly attractive option for customers. According to Twitter, there has been a 59% increase in the number of tweets aimed at brands and service handles in the travel, transportation, and hospitality sector between March 2013 and February 2015 (the fifth-highest rate of growth, ahead of telecom, technology, and retail).
Simply Measured found that the first six weeks of 2014 saw a 41% increase in Twitter mentions of the Interbrand 100 top brands compared to the same period in the previous year, and a 33% growth in Twitter responses over the same period (exceeding Twitter’s overall growth of 27.7% between 2013 and 2014, per Pew Research Center). According to the Sprout Social Index, in the first two quarters of 2015, the number of social messages sent to brands increased globally by 21%. The 40 largest airlines on social media generated 2.8 million results on Twitter over a three-month period.
“The headline for us over the last two years has really been ‘growth,’” says Ashley Pettit, social business manager of communication and outreach for Southwest Airlines. “Growth in our social care team, growth in the volume of customers contacting Southwest on social media channels, and growth in the number of customers we are able to respond to.”
With all this growth, the airline has focused much of its efforts over the last year on scaling its Social Care team. In the last 18 months, the team has grown from three to almost 30 employees, available seven days a week to answer customer questions.
When customers have something to say to brands, they say it on social media.
“Guests don’t want to reach out via a platform only to be told to call a toll-free number,” says Dan Moriarty, director of social strategy for Hyatt. “They want to have the conversation in the channel in which they are most comfortable.”
Hyatt has seen this centrality of Twitter and Facebook in its customer service dealings. The company introduced @HyattConcierge to Twitter in 2009, and launched its corporate Facebook presence in 2011. This handle got an average of 6.6 mentions per hour during the first week of August 2015, according to Conversocial.
As in-flight Wi-Fi has become a standard offering in many airlines, customer service opportunities are also occurring during the flight itself. Virgin America, which offers fleet-wide Wi-Fi and power outlets at every seat, the airline’s social team now responds to requests like seat changes and snack requests. Abby Lunardini, Virgin America’s VP of brand marketing and communications, points to a recent example of this sort of real-time service, when an onboard guest was having trouble purchasing a menu item with his credit card through the in-flight Red entertainment system.
“The team came across his tweet, reached out to our operations center, and asked them to message the flight crew directly,” she says. “An in-flight teammate then delivered a sandwich straight to the guest, free of charge.”
Hotel brands have long been using a similar approach to connect their global social media teams with individual properties and on-the-ground staff.
Alissa Montbriand, VP of global integrated marketing communications for Carlson Rezidor Hotel Group, gives the example of a guest who tweeted @Radisson about the need for more regular coffee in their guest room.
“The Social Care team was able to quickly contact the hotel, locate the guest’s room and deliver a fresh pot of hot coffee,” she says. “This was not only a fantastic surprise and delight to the guest, but underscores the ‘Yes I can!’ service philosophy of the brand.”
The Carlson Rezidor Hotel Group now provides its hotels with a listening and monitoring tool to help engage directly with guests, while its global Social Care team also responds to guests for issues that can be handled on the company-wide level.
But this growth of social can create difficulties as well. Responding quickly is essential: According to research by Lithium Technologies, while 53% of people expect a brand to respond to their tweet within an hour, this rises to 72% when the tweet is a complaint. When brands fail to provide this rapid response, 38% of customers say they feel more negative about a brand, while 60% will take action to express their dissatisfaction.
“Unfortunately, even though customers have embraced social media (and many service professionals have as well, publicly and privately), it is often a challenge for businesses,” writes Keith Dawson, Practice Leader for Customer Engagement for Ovum, in its report “Social Customer Service,” in collaboration with Conversocial. “Many companies find themselves unsure of how best to manage its complexity.”
Twitter and Facebook at the center of customer care
Hospitality companies’ use of Twitter and Facebook as customer service tools has evolved from even a year ago. As social has become a central part of the digital landscape, it has also become an increasingly important part of hospitality brands’ broader customer service and marketing efforts. KLM offers a useful case study. It began its social media efforts in late 2009, and its Facebook and Twitter feed were soon bombarded following the eruption of the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull, and the hundreds of flight cancellations and tens of thousands of grounded passengers it created. As information desks and call centers were jammed, Facebook and Twitter became valuable ways for the airline to get up-to-the-minute information to its customers. The platforms also helped KLM’s team of 150 volunteers to rebook the 50,000 passengers.
Since this catch-up effort, KLM has taken a much more proactive approach in its social care. It established a formal Social Media Hub, expanded to new platforms, and now offers 24-hour customer service via social networks, making these channels much more about two-way conversations with customers than tools for broadcasting information.
“When we started, people were happy to see a response to begin with, but very quickly their expectations grew,” says Tjalling Smit, Senior Vice President of e-Commerce for Air France and KLM. “We had to find more agents and add resources.”
Now KLM promises to answer any message within the hour and to solve every issue within 24 hours.
Hilton’s Social Guest Assistance team has similarly had to set higher standards for itself as expectations have risen: one-hour response and resolution within 24 hours (though in most cases says they are able to hit a 30-minute response and solution within 12 hours, according to Hilton).
These are ambitious goals compared to social media customer service more broadly: Simply Measured found that just 6% of the Interbrand 100 top brands responded within an hour; 11% responded within two hours.
Starwood Hotels & Resorts has seen a similar formalization of its social media program. It began in 2010 as an offshoot of the brand’s traditional customer service efforts, with a group of five people based in St. Thomas, who previously answered phones, taking on the social channels. This pilot program has evolved into a team of 30 full-time social team members, fluent in 15 languages and available around the clock.
“Time is of the essence in this business, but putting all of the pieces in place to move swiftly as we cover 24 hours a day, seven days a week in 24 languages is complex,” said Michael English, SVP, customer contact centers and electronic distribution at Starwood Hotels & Resorts. English claims that Starwood “will respond faster than any of our competitors” to a tweet.
Globally, the company manages 3.6 million social engagements a year. Though this is still a fraction of the 17 million phone calls received, it represents a fast-growing volume, with engagement increasing by more than 10% a year, according to Starwood. This growth is similar to what many hospitality brands are seeing throughout the industry.Using social media to promote discounts, special offers, and contests has proven especially valuable as online travel agencies like Orbitz and Expedia command much of the search engine traffic, keeping customers from directly visiting the websites for individual hotel and airline brands. Social media is where travel brands can let their personalities show and create emotional connections with customers that can’t be accomplished when someone is just making a decision based on price at an OTA. According to Shareaholic, social media is the top driver of traffic to brand websites (with the top eight social networks driving 31% of overall traffic, up from 23% a year before). For example, in addition to @HyattConcierge, Hyatt now also runs @HyattTweets, the brand’s “push channel,” which tweets out special offers, new hotel openings, and brand promotions.
Deepening connections to travelers
Beyond simply solving customers’ problems, social media offers unique ways for brands to actually enhance the travel experience. Starwood’s English stresses the growing importance social plays in providing personalization, using the platforms to learn more about guests and their specific preferences.
“Each trip is different, and as we handle guests from Shanghai to San Antonio, understanding the very latest about them provides a treasure trove of information,” he says. “We use these close and personal interactions to care for our guests and connect in a way that is deeper and more relevant than we ever could before. This allows our properties to deliver experiences that are unprecedented.”
Tweeting and Facebooking has become a way for brands to differentiate themselves without blowing up their advertising budget. For example, Virgin America estimates that it spends about 1/10th the advertising budget of other major carriers, but heavy involvement in social has been an effective way to make the brand stand out (it was named a finalist for the Simpliflying award for best airline brand in social media customer service, along with Air Asia, Southwest, and KLM).
More than other customer service channels, social lends itself to creating memorable experiences for customers.
“As you’ll see across our channels, we’re always looking for ways to have fun, be a little bit cheeky and create conversation around the unique aspects of the brand and product experience,” says Virgin America’s Lunardini.
She points to recurring hashtags like #MeetTheFleet, where Virgin brings the personalities of the aircraft personnel to life, and #MoodlightMonday, in which the brand “moodlights” familiar sites and historic moments with a photo filter that gives it the look of the airline’s signature purple lighting. Just recently, as Virgin announced its new Hawaii services, the brand’s social team tweeted personally to followers who had been asking for the destination.
The word-of-mouth nature of social media can also help hospitality brands serve their broader company initiatives. When Virgin recently sought to drive support for securing the brand two operational gates at the Dallas Love Field airport, it turned to Twitter, introducing the #LoveToFlyVirgin hashtag (generating more than 2,000 tweets and exposure to 62.2 million people) and helping it to garner more than 27,000 signatures for a change.org petition. When the company rang the bell at Nasdaq to celebrate its public listing, it streamed live images of guests toasting champagne on board Virgin flights across billboards in Times Square.
The brand aims to keep this level of engagement going in 2016. Though Lunardini says the social team “remains pretty lean” she says “we are committed to producing the best content out there for our followers.” That is why Virgin America will be making further investments to increase its guest care staffing to ensure the team keeps response time low.
“Being accessible to our guests when and where they need us will be a continued focus in 2016 which includes our interest to globalize social care to provide a seamless guest experience, in addition to continually adapting to the ever-changing online world of social media,” adds Carlson Rezidor Hotel Group’s Montbriand.
Kimpton Hotels aims to connect with prospective customers even when they are not thinking of travel “but instead are dreaming up a summer cocktail or living-room design,” as Kathleen Reidenbach, SVP of marketing for Kimpton Hotels, says.
She gives the example of special offerings—such as room upgrades or tickets to local attractions—Kimpton has begun to give guests through Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram that can be accessed with a “secret social password.” Kimpton uses social media to promote user-generated content, with “Your Lens” Pinterest boards and a monthly selfie contest, #AdoreThySelfie (aided by selfie sticks just made available at the hotels’ front desks).
Hilton has similarly worked to not only solve guest problems, but find ways to enhance their experiences. It does so with two separate social media teams: Social Guest Assistance and Hilton Suggests. The former team monitors all 12 of the brands’ social media accounts for any customer issues. Coordinating between the individual brands and hotels, Social Guest Assistance responds to thousands of messages in real time, assisting with bookings and other requests.
But to offer a more localized approach to customer service, the company launched Hilton Suggests. The Twitter account, staffed by more than 100 contributors serving markets around the world, offers up specific recommendations on such points as where to eat or what to do. It has attracted more than 8,800 followers to date.
The goal with Hilton Suggests is to provide “authentic connections,” according to Vanessa Sain-Dieguez, director of social media planning and integration for Hilton Worldwide. This is done by giving employees an individual voice so they can offer particular suggestions, whether for London or Orlando. “By providing local tips in a real and honest way, Hilton Suggests builds relationships and brand loyalty with every tweet sent,” she adds.
Smaller hotel brands are tapping into the potential of social media customer service as well, developing creative ways to help customers experience their properties and share the experience. For example, Pegasus Lodges & Resorts teamed with marketing firm SapientNitro to create a surfing app that can be used to create a unique surf ride and share it out to friends.
“The application is designed to get you as close to the experience as possible,” explains James Wilkinson, VP and executive creative director for SapientNitro. “We wanted to create a digital experience that would get as many people as possible virtually there. You see yourself on location when you’re doing those things and when you’re there you can actually do them.”
Challenges: Making the right impressions
As the use of Twitter and Facebook has grown, customer expectations on these sites have also jumped. According to Twitter’s own data, companies in general are having trouble keeping up with customer tweets, with 38% of unique tweets sent to service handles going unanswered (though this is an improvement over the previous year, in which 46% of these tweets went unanswered).
As customers have become more comfortable in their communications with brands, their questions have increased as have the number of interactions — a good thing for helping strengthen customers’ connection to a brand, but also a situation requiring greater resources. As the goal posts keep moving, brands are having to scramble to keep a balance of optimal customer service and efficient use of resources.
Creating these personal, rapid responses can require a major outlay of resources. Hospitality brands standing out as leaders in their social customer service are making major investments in this area, expanding their teams and marketing budgets.
“The biggest changes comes more in terms of volume and time rather than philosophy,” says Starwood’s English.
With hotels in almost 200 countries, the priority for the brand has become covering any specialized languages as needs arise. He describes the social efforts as part of the brand’s larger 3,000-person associate population focused on serving guests centrally, with resources across 10 global sites.
The expanded role of social media also means that any customer service inadequacies—slow or unhelpful responses, impersonal tone—become more glaring and public. It can also be difficult to make exceptional service stand out in a crowded market.
Hilton Worldwide, with 12 global brands and 4,440 properties, requiring custom messaging based on geographic and brand differences, has taken a decentralized approach. Since most properties have their own individual pages, each brand or property can take its own personal approach, though the umbrella brand monitors all brands and properties to ensure nothing falls through the cracks.
For example, one of the signature offerings of DoubleTree by Hilton has long been a warm chocolate chip cookie at check-in. The brand extended this fun, memorable touch point to social media with #CookieCare, encouraging visitors to post photos or requests for cookies using the hashtag. Over the last two years, DoubleTree has deepened guest experiences with surprise cookie deliveries and “Cookie Care Packages” as well as free travel vouchers.
This year, timed with National Chocolate Chip Cookie Day, the brand launched a week-long contest that invited fans to vote on a new packaging design for the treat.
“Collective engagement across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram during the program period achieved a 290% increase in impressions and engagement over our 2014 campaign,” says Maggie Giddens, director of brand public relations for DoubleTree by Hilton.
Brands are also grappling with the challenge presented by social media of speaking to audiences at both a global and local level. In part, a brand needs to maintain a consistent voice across all of its social media. At the other level, the individual users often have issues related to their specific stay or flight. To strike this balance, hospitality brands have taken different approaches in the permissions they grant their social care teams and how they are organized.
As social media customer service teams grow, brands are finding ways to scale their messaging and personal touch. Joshua March, founder and CEO of social media research firm Conversocial, points out that his firm’s biggest clients originally developed their social customer service with a small “crack team of highly qualified agents who they could really trust to deliver service in this very public way.” But as the handful of customer service superstars has expanded to a team of hundreds of agents, the brands are challenged to maintain the same level of quality across an expanding landscape.
While putting in more rigorous processes can ensure consistency, it can lose the personal touch for which social media is so well-suited. But relinquishing control to individual reps can create a host of other risks. Some of Conversocial’s clients have found greatest success with a tiered approach. In these scenarios, lower-level agents are charged with dealing with standard issues that call for more scripted solutions (answering a question about a flight time, for example), while higher-level agents take on trickier situations (helping a customer make a complicated rebooking), and are given more freedom in their responses.
For example, at Kimpton, it gives authority to the teams at individual hotels and restaurants to devise ways to connect with their specific audiences.
“Posts aren’t mandated by the home office,” says Reidenbach. “Rather than being a one-way marketing vehicle, it’s an opportunity for us to connect with guests on a deeper, more personal level and respond to their feedback in real time, from real people who care.”
Southwest’s team is embedded in the airline’s customer service department, where they can tap the brand’s resources to resolve issues in real-time, “without shuffling the customer to another channel,” as Southwest’s Pettit puts it.
Other brands are finding that the team working on the national brand level must integrate with the hotel or destination operations team to see that issues are solved. Hyatt’s Moriarty emphasizes that helping to manage guest expectations on a brand level while responding to inquiries about a specific hotel or destination has led to what he calls a “two-pronged approach.”
“While we have historically focused on maximizing our centralized efforts, we’ve started putting a stronger focus on providing our hotels with training and technology solutions enabling them to create similar efforts at the local level,” says Moriarty. “Even with the best attention from a central resource, it’s essential for the team to be connected with operations to ensure the service is extended to where the guest is at that moment.”
Social media’s public nature makes it that much more important for brands to stay a step ahead of events both large and small. A survey by Accent found that nearly half of consumers use social media to publicly air their issues, while 51% use social media to determine if others are having issues similar to them. A snowstorm or flash flood can cause a major disruption to a brand’s network and a spike in social media volumes. Failing to respond fast enough can compound the problem. These issues, and social media volume in general, affect airlines far more than hotels. According to Conversocial, the 10 largest airlines receive more than 10 times the average number of Twitter mentions than the 10 largest hotel brands (51.38 mentions/hour versus 4.9 mentions/hour).
Emerging social platforms: Going where the customer is
While the public nature of social media is one of its defining characteristics, hospitality brands are now actually seeing a boomerang back to a more private approach on these platforms. Instead of posting messages on the public pages, customers are seeking ways to privately message brands.
Joshua March of Conversocial believes that the “biggest forward-looking thing” they are seeing in the social media customer service segment is in messaging applications, which he believes are encroaching quickly on email and livechat channels. This not only reflects the more personal approach customers seem to prefer, but the growing importance played by mobile in social media use.
“It’s the live-chat experience but built for mobile,” he says, pointing out that it also offers the benefit of being asynchronous (allowing the customer to continue the conversation later) and is connected to smartphone notifications. “It has the potential to be a really powerful service channel.”
This summer, KLM launched its Facebook Messaging button on its page and saw an enormous increase in private messages to its team. It also recently tested the use of WhatsApp for its Dutch customers with strong results, and is considering expanding that more widely. Hyatt has been using Asian messaging app WeChat to connect with the Chinese market.
March stresses that “so many interactions that happen with hospitality brands now happen on a smartphone,” including booking flights or hotels, broadcasting complaints or posting photos in real time. This has made messaging apps like Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp, that “combine the live chat experience but with smartphone notifications,” a great fit for the space.
Additionally, while Facebook and Twitter may be the 800-pound gorillas of social media, brands are embracing a wide range of new platforms to ensure they are there for the customer.
“Instagram has been a very fast-growing platform over the past few years,” says Virgin America’s Lunardini. “We like it because it’s such an easy and simple way for us to share visual content with our followers and to find out if they like it.”
The brand is also active on LinkedIn and Pinterest, and is currently exploring Snapchat as a way to connect with travelers. Achieving a first for airline brands, Virgin launched its own in-flight social media network early last year. Travelers who download the Here On Biz app can network with other business travelers on the same flight, at the same conference or destination, or traveling with Virgin in some other capacity.
The embrace of new platforms is also related to geography. Earlier this year, KLM went live on KakaoTalk, a platform little known among Americans but used by 100 million people in Korea and the surrounding region. This joins the growing stable of social media accounts on which the brand has made itself available around the clock, including WeChat, Sina Weibo, and Russia’s VKontakte.
“We believe we should be where our customers choose to be,” says Smit. “It used to be Twitter and Facebook, and increasingly we see that people now choose their own social network and we believe we should be there as a brand.”
But he adds that the brand has moved into each of these new platforms cautiously, since once they make the commitment to these various audiences, “there is no way back.”
Kimpton is similarly “hyper-conscientious about the platforms [the brand] expands to,” according to Reidenbach. Currently it has a presence on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, and Pinterest. “[We] prefer to home in on a select few versus an unstructured or spotty presence on multiple channels.”
The ways customers are using social media has also expanded. Early last year, KLM was the first airline to introduce a way for customers to make payments through social media, and saw about $25 million in sales through this channel in 2014. Customers can now also select their seats, buy upgrades, and pay for luggage checks through their social media accounts.
The fact that social media is live and immediate creates opportunities to generate revenue for short-lead bookings.
“If we have empty seats available for the weekend, we can use Twitter as a way to push a fare sale at the last minute,” says Virgin America’s Lunardini.
Social care metrics: the fastest and most active travel brandsTen Largest Hotel Brands
|Company||Handle||Care Handle||Mentions/Hour||Avg Response Time||Responses Under 1 Hour||Responsiveness (%)|
|Hyatt||@HyattTweets||@HyattConcierge||6.6||8 minutes 6 seconds||95.30%||26.30%|
|Starwood Hotels||@StarwoodBuzz||@spgassist||2||9 minutes 54 seconds||97%||47.60%|
|InterContinental Hotel||@InterConHotels||@IHGCare||3.6||14 minutes, 18 seconds||99%||36.50%|
|Hilton Hotel||@HiltonHotels||@HiltonHelp||11.9||20 minutes 32 seconds||97.60%||37.30%|
|Choice Hotels||@ChoiceHotels||n/a||4.1||1 hour 12 minutes||69.80%||7.30%|
|Marriott Hotel||@Marriott||n/a||11.7||1 hour 18 minutes||59.20%||10.60%|
|Wyndham Hotels||@Wyndham||@WHGSupport||1.5||3 hours 13 minutes||33%||23.10%|
|Radisson||@Radisson||n/a||1.6||5 hours 38 minutes||20%||5.40%|
|Best Western||@TheBestWestern||n/a||2.3||6 hours 30 minutes||28.60%||7.30%|
|Four Seasons Hotels||@FourSeasons||n/a||5.4||17 hours, 36 minutes||19.00%||5.10%|
|Averages||--||--||4.9||3 hours, 38 minutes||58.08%||20.02%|
|Company||Handle||Care Handle||Mentions/Hour||Avg Response Time||Responses Under 1 Hour||Responsiveness (%)|
|Delta||@Delta||@DeltaAssist||54.7||8 minutes 39 seconds||96.60%||41.90%|
|American Airlines||@AmericanAir||--||109.2||13 minutes 23 seconds||100%||44.20%|
|easyJet||@easyJet||--||25.5||19 minutes 30 seconds||94%||48.70%|
|Ryanair||@ryanair||--||23.9||23 minutes 32 seconds||90.80%||17.80%|
|Lufthansa||@Lufthansa||--||13.5||29 minutes 16 seconds||87.80%||11.90%|
|JetBlue||@JetBlue||--||26.1||1 hour 22 minutes||99.70%||33.80%|
|United Airlines||@United||--||104.4||3 hours 42 minutes||42%||10.90%|
|Emirates||@Emirates||@EmiratesSupport||22.3||3 hours 48 minutes||45%||18.50%|
|British Airways||@British_Airways||--||102.4||4 hours 22 minutes||3.00%||26.40%|
|Southwest Airlines||@SouthwestAir||--||31.8||10 hours 7 minutes||53.20%||12.00%|
|Averages||n/a||51.38||2 hours, 29 minutes||71.00%||26.61%|
Insights and strategies
Balance local and global. Social care creates the paradox of requiring a brand to operate on both the local and global levels. It gives companies a public forum to handle customer issues in a way that must reflect the overall brand identity, but at the same time, many issues relate to a specific property or flight that requires a more local touch. It is essential to strike a balance between both these messages.
Move quickly but carefully. Another paradox of social is how the need for speed is balanced with a need for due diligence. Successful hospitality brands set a goal of responding to customer social comments within the hour, but give themselves a day to actually solve the issue. This two-tiered approach ensures the customer feels heard, but that agents aren’t pressured to respond so quickly that they misunderstand the issue or make promises on which they can’t deliver.
Surprise and delight. Social media is a great place to show off the best of a brand in enhancing customers’ experiences. Go beyond simply solving customer problems and find ways to create memorable moments for travelers that they will want to share—or that you can.
Get mobile and embrace messaging. Mobile messaging is where social customer care is heading. Explore where services like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger can fit into a brand’s overall social media portfolio. In many ways this is a return to the traditional, private one-on-one approach that has defined customer service for decades, but while also incorporating social. Integrate. Twitter and Facebook are now central to customer service, and should be positioned that way in a brand’s organization. Rather than as a bolt-on team, the social care agents should be integrated into a company’s broader social media efforts, allowing customers to move between channels, even when addressing the same issue, depending on their preferences.