Monday, March 14, 2011

Virgin America Support: A pretty useful Twitter experience

So I had a flight canceled, got some credits and tried to transfer them to my bro.  The process was long, aggravating and unsuccessful: by the time we finally managed to negotiate the human-faceless megacorp divide, tickets had gone up by more than the credits were worth in the first place.

Like so many other humans in this position, I posted a juvenile rant on the internet, resolved to use other airlines in the future (not that I expected that to help) and figured that was that.

Except Virgin America responded.  This blog you see, it's set up to tweet headlines and links whenever I post, through my attached twitter account.  Virgin America clearly has alerts set up to monitor their online reputation and began following me shortly after my post. 

I followed back. 

After a week or so of high-latency (on both sides) direct-message back-and-forth, VA reviewed the situation and opted to credit my brother for the difference -- on his credit card, not simply an account for future flights.  They basically left us where we would have been had the application of my credits to his flight actually worked when we first tried it.

Now, that's pretty cool.  When I was posting my rant, I knew that this was the age of Google Alerts and job descriptions like Social Marketing Manager, so I did know there was an outside chance that my words might eventually hit the screen of someone in VA's employ.  I didn't however expect them to respond or attempt to make things right. 

So what is there to say?  As an individual customer, it's pretty clear that I don't matter much to Virgin:
  • They strung me and the wife along at the gate for hours rather than canceling the flight.  An earlier cancellation would have let me schedule a new flight in a timely enough manner to make it back on Friday.  It also would have allowed a decent night's sleep before working online from Virginia.  Canceling the flight costs them a lot of money, enough that looking out for our experiences was secondary.  They did provide soda and chips though.
  • Their email contact system has an indefensible character count limit that clearly discriminates against users with my level of verbosity.  Even after I edited for length, I still to this date have received no response from my two submissions through that form.
  • 30 seconds on their phone system and you know that VA is not concerned about phone contacts being an important part of the customer interaction.  It takes a while to even convince the thing that you want to speak a human and once it concedes that point, it takes FAR longer to actually make that happen.  I have a decent amount of experience working as front-line support, working with front-line support and even managing front-line support.  I know that putting a human at the other end of the line is expensive, but I also know that computer-human reactions are nowhere near as satisfying.  Some companies pay extra in order to win this experience.  VA does not.
  • When my wife called to explain the exact situation that I blogged about, she received no sympathy nor action from support.
On the other hand, as an online ranter, I do matter:
  • They responded pretty quickly after my post went live.  The idea of companies actively monitoring their online reputation probably seems obvious to those who would read this blog, but I'm pretty sure there are many corps messing that up, probably even in the airline industry.
  • They did respond slowly, but 1) they let me know it would take a while and 2) they did respond.  They had no legal need, there was no prior commitment that they were honoring.  There was no explicit quid pro quo - I made no claim that I would remove or edit my rant and they didn't ask.
This behavior actually makes sense.  As an individual customer, it doesn't cost them much to lose me.  As a potential online influence on others, it might make sense to contain me.  I'm not flattering myself here - neither I nor VA actually knows the scope of my online influnce.  It's probably very low, but that's hard for them to determine and being nice in this case was quite cheap in comparison. 

Of course the end-game arithmetic doesn't work out: if only squeaky wheels get the grease then customers should all become squeaky.  Dealing with squeaky wheels over twitter and refunds has got to be more expensive than actually interacting with your customers in the first place.  That said, the bet on their end is obviously that most wheels won't squeak, i.e., most folks will just suck it up and move on.  That bet is, I think, a good one.

At the end of the day, Virgin stepped up and me and the bro are pretty happy.  I'll fly with them again if they're going my way and I felt like I should write this post to pass on the rest of the story.  I'll still view any potential phone or email experience with dread, but as long as I can keep things simple and just deal with the computers like I'm supposed to, I expect a pretty good experience.  I'm stoked that they journeyed out to my station in the outer rim of the blogosphere in order to go the extra step to get things sorted out.  And they still offer the power of flight - that's a pretty convincingly awesome thing to be purchased at such a low price.