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Social Media Revolutionizes Communication and Customer Service

Travelers Today       By    Karen Fredrickson

Updated: Jun 27, 2013 12:24 PM EDT

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Makeshift Toilet Paper
A photograph of the makeshift toilet paper photographed by a passenger and posted online.(Photo : FlyTalk)

The Internet and social media have changed the way people complain about service and receive responses from companies over problems, something United Airlines recently experienced firsthand, according to CNN. Prior to social media, customers had to write a letter to complain, and companies had more control over the process.

Now, customers can just tweet about their experience right as it's happening. They can include pictures and video. Many then expect the companies to respond within minutes.

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This was evident in the recent incident on board a United Airlines flight that ran out of toilet paper. Passengers on the flight immediately posted about their experience.

"Apparently, they ran out in one [lavaratory] half-way home and couldn't bother to transfer a roll from another," a passenger posted on FlyerTalk, a popular online message forum. The poster included a photograph of the napkins in a makeshift container labeled "toilet paper," in the lavatory.

The thread has resulted in 10 pages of comments about United Airlines customer service and business practices.

The result of this new way of complaining is forcing companies to rethink they way they provide customer service. Airlines, cruise lines and hotels are hiring social media teams to establish an online presence that can quickly respond to online complaints and comments, serving essentially as damage control for their public relations at the same time they are addressing customers problems.

"If someone tweets that they're at an [airport] gate in Chicago and not getting a lot of information about their flight, we will let them know the status of the flight," Morgan Johnston, JetBlue's corporate communications manager and social media strategist, told CNN. The company has a team of about 30 employees dedicated to responding to people online. "If one person's tweeting, there's probably another 149 people who have the same concerns."

This method of customer service has time constraints, which can make it difficult for employees to determine the facts about a situation, but they do their best.

"If there's a direct question, we try to respond within 15 minutes, and more often, it's under five minutes," Johnston said. "This is real-time media.

"If I'm a customer, I can get out four tweets in five minutes," Johnston continued. "If you're not part of the conversation, you don't have any ability to change the direction of it."

Companies are aware of the potential audience that can see a negative comment and the impact it can have on a company's reputation, so they are trying to get ahead of the complaints, making the customers happy and preventing a dent in their corporate reputation simultaneously.

"The emergence of digital media has put a special emphasis on customer service," Josiah Mackenzie, the director of business development at ReviewPro, said. "It's all about service, keeping our guests delighted.

"It's not a complex subject," he continued. "It's just the way people communicate is different."

United Airlines responded to the toilet paper incident in a company statement after seeing the post of FlyerTalk.

"We apologize to our customers on this flight for the inconvenience and would like the opportunity to welcome them back," the company said.

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