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Airline Social Media 'Command Centers' Direct Complaint Traffic


Flight running late? Wondering what happened to your lost luggage? Instead of waiting in line for information you might want to take out your phone and send a tweet or Facebook message. A growing number of airlines have hired social media first responders to help with customer relations. Southwest Airlines has just joined the club. KERA's Lauren Silverman visited the new control center at Dallas headquarters.

LAUREN SILVERMAN, BYLINE: In a glass-enclosed command center, nine Southwest employees are sitting in front of double monitors furiously tweeting and Facebooking.

ASHLEY PETTIT: So on average, we're receiving about 3,100 mentions of our company every single day across the social web.

SILVERMAN: Ashley Pettit is with Southwest. She points up to eight large flat-screens displaying the news, trending topics in the airline industry, photos and videos people have tagged with Southwest and detailed flight data. That's what makes this social media command center stand out. It's directly connected to the real flight command center.

PETTIT: So any cities or locations that have severe weather - if there are any significant flight delays, we're able to see those as they happen. That allows us to be more proactive in responding to customers. So before they turn to Twitter or Facebook to ask us what's going on, we have all that information.

SILVERMAN: Social care representatives - yes, that's what they're called - say this technology makes it possible to solve problems without having to wait in line or on hold. Shannon Whitney says a few days ago someone called in a complaint the old-fashioned way only to find out...

PETTIT: His 15-year-old son had already tweeted at us, and we had already filed a complaint, issued compensation, taken care of the whole thing. It was just in the process of being approved, and they were about to get the e-mails with the vouchers. And so that was kind of a fun interception that, you know, we're already on top of it.

RAGY THOMAS: These command centers are popping up everywhere.

SILVERMAN: Ragy Thomas is founder of Sprinklr, which helps global companies manage social media.

THOMAS: Most airlines are finding social media channels to be a very cost-effective way to deal with customer service issues as well as marketing opportunities.

SILVERMAN: Major international airlines like KLM have more than 130 people on their social media team dealing with complaints, comments and compliments within an hour. And that's in addition to their call center. Shashank Nigam, CEO of strategy firm SimpliFlying, says not every airline has to hire so many social media mavens. New technology and GPS tracking could help streamline by prioritizing comments.

SHASHANK NIGAM: You know, if someone asks Southwest Airlines hey, when are you starting a new flight to Bali? You know, that's not as relevant a question to be replied in real time as someone who's at a gate and says, I'm about to miss my flight. Can you please help me out?

SILVERMAN: And get this - social media can also help airlines identify who's an important, high net worth customer. Here's Ragy Thomas.

THOMAS: And that's where the real magic happens because you can quickly find out this is a high net worth customer for us. We have had three issues in the last three weeks. And now maybe I should just get permission from my manager to give her an upgrade on the flight and communicate that to ground personnel so that when she checks in, you know, she's just being told that you've been upgraded.

SILVERMAN: Right now, airlines are mostly using social media to issue faster apologies. And while getting a quick sorry ya'll on Twitter is nice, the end goal is to spend less time asking forgiveness and more time building the brand. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Silverman in Dallas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lauren Silverman is the Health, Science & Technology reporter/blogger at KERA News. She is also the primary backup host for KERA’s Think and the statewide newsmagazine Texas Standard. In 2016, Lauren was recognized as Texas Health Journalist of the Year by the Texas Medical Association. She was part of the Peabody Award-winning team that covered Ebola for NPR in 2014. She also hosted "Surviving Ebola," a special that won Best Long Documentary honors from the Public Radio News Directors Inc. (PRNDI). And she's won a number of regional awards, including an honorable mention for Edward R. Murrow award (for her project “The Broken Hip”), as well as the Texas Veterans Commission’s Excellence in Media Awards in the radio category.
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