Waiting at the gate for my United flight to Nashville for the National Propane Gas Association’s 2016 Southeastern Convention & International Propane Expo, I heard my name called over the loudspeaker.
“Susan Janett. Would Susan Janett please come to the counter?”
My first thought was, “This can’t be good.” And it wasn’t.
I was scheduled to arrive in Nashville at 10 a.m., which would give me plenty of time to get to the convention center, where I was scheduled to lead the workshop on social media. I had been working on the presentation for days, hoping to reward the audience with a much better understanding of the growing importance and power of social media. Little did I realize that I would become the lesson.
“I’m sorry, Ms. Janett, but we are overbooked. We offered $500 travel comps to get folks to give up their seats and board a later flight, but had no takers. So unfortunately, we are removing you from this plane and will book you on the next connection out.”
I did the math, and it didn’t add up.
“But that means I won’t get there until 3:30 p.m. I’m speaking at the convention at 2 p.m. It won’t work. I’ve had these reservations for over a month now; surely there must be something you can do – get me on another airline?”
Nope. Nothing. All the attendant said was, “We’ll have you on the next flight out, which arrives at 3:30.”
It was like talking with a robot. She wasn’t listening to a single word I was saying.
Many of you have been in this position before – whether it was with an airline, phone company, car dealership – you name it. It’s a feeling of anger, frustration, disbelief and desperation that equates to a feeling of powerlessness. Only we now live in a world where the consumer has a lot more power to influence. In the age of social media, companies are more vulnerable to suffer consequences when they fail customers.
Of course, this is a double-edged sword, as I was prepared to tell the audience in Nashville that good companies can cultivate consumer loyalty and use it to promote their brand to the marketplace. However, negative reviews and complaints, often ill-founded, can also serve as a detour sign around your company when potential customers look you up online.
In my case, there was nothing ill-founded about this. They had sold me the ticket. They certainly would have charged me a whopping penalty had I asked to change the flight on my own. But they thought they were immune to any backlash. They were wrong.
What they didn’t realize is that I have more than 4,000 social media followers, and as a consultant to fuel companies on digital and social media, I certainly know how the game is played. So I tweeted out the following message, and also posted it on my Facebook page:
“Thank you #United for overbooking my flight from Newark to Nashville and bumping me, despite my having booked over a month ago. And a special shout-out to the #attitude at the departures desk who could care less that I will now likely MISS my 2pm #SpeakingEngagement at the #NPGA Southeastern Convention. #Worst #CustomerServiceExperience ever.”
Literally three minutes after my post, I hear over the loud speaker, “Ladies and gentlemen, we are now offering a travel voucher of $1,000 to the first person to voluntarily give up their seat.”
And barely a minute later I heard, “Susan Janett, would Susan Janett come to the United counter?”
When I got there, the attendant handed me a phone. It was a United customer service manager.
The woman on the phone said, “We are so sorry for any inconvenience this misunderstanding has caused. We have a seat for you on the plane, and will have you in Nashville in time to speak at the convention. Please accept our apologies.”
In the end, I made it to Nashville on time, and Ben Gutkin and I had a great time with a packed audience. Not how I would have scripted it, but sometimes you just can’t make this stuff up.
Takeaways from the experience:
- While United was certainly influenced by the sheer size of my following, I have heard many stories where simply mentioning the name of a company the right way gets a very fast response regardless of the number of followers because they don’t want things going viral.
- When a company tells you they don’t have any options, sometimes they just don’t have sufficient motivation. In my case, they had been offering folks $500 to give up their seat. After my post went live on social media, the value of getting me on that plane doubled, upping the ante to $1,000.
- While I was put back on the flight, four other passengers had to change their plans because they did not know how to bring on this kind of leverage. Their value remained at the standard $500, and not a penny more.
- You cannot afford to ignore the growing power and influence of social media. Propane, oil and HVAC companies often enter the social media realm slowly, with trepidation, because they don’t really understand how it works, or they can’t see the immediate return on investment. In particular, if an owner isn’t connected, he or she has a hard time prioritizing this. But all you need to do is look at the valuation of Facebook to realize where the game is headed. It’s not just about reviews, but ways to engage customers, get referrals, build your brand, advertise to very select groups – you name it.
But simply having a Facebook page or Twitter account is not the answer. In fact, it can even backfire on you if you manage it poorly. Simply assigning the “girl in the office who is on Facebook a lot” to come up with your social media strategy is like finding the guy who drives an SUV and putting him behind the wheel of a bobtail. Maybe he’ll make a great driver, but there’s a lot more to it.