IF you’re not protesting an election or promoting a product, Twitter, the microblogging site that has been getting so much attention these days, can be easy to dismiss.
It’s been described as an ego-stroker for those who want to broadcast the minutiae of their lives in 140 characters or less. It’s a virtual popularity contest to see who can rack up the most followers. And it’s yet another way to procrastinate on the Web.
But after signing up for my own Twitter account earlier this year (www.twitter.com/michellehiggins) — and being guilty of all of the above — I can now attest to at least one practical use for travelers: complaining.
As hotels, airlines and other travel companies line up on Twitter to promote their brands, customers who voice their grievances in the form of tweets are getting surprisingly fast responses for everything from bad airplane seats to poor room service.
Take Tony Wagner, 34, a new-media director for an academic group in Washington. When he found out he wasn’t seated next to his wife and 2-year-old daughter on a JetBlue flight to San Francisco over the Memorial Day weekend, he first called up customer service. But the agent told him to take it up at the gate. So Mr. Wagner indirectly sent JetBlue a message, by posting a plea for help on his Twitter account: “@jetblue Advice to get both parents and 2 yr old seated next to each other on flight later today? Right now only one parent. Full flight.”
Exactly 19 minutes later, JetBlue tweeted back, suggesting they correspond privately, using Twitter’s “direct message” feature: “@tonywagner Please follow us so we may DM!” After a brief exchange, JetBlue flagged his tickets as a priority concern.
Mr. Wagner suspects he received better service because of Twitter’s viral nature. Twitterers habitually “re-tweet” one another’s posts, not unlike forwarding an e-mail message to everyone in your address book. Companies, he said, “want to head off the conversation as quickly as possible,” adding, that “it’s in their best interest to make people who have a pulpit happy.”
JetBlue puts a more positive spin on it. Disgruntled customers “tend to be the biggest opportunities,” said Morgan Johnston, a spokesman for the airline who helps manage its Twitter account, which has more than 770,000 followers. “We can take that person aside and kind of pull them in and say, ‘Hey, you seem to be really upset in front of several hundred or thousand people.’ ”
That might explain why some customers prefer Twittering over contacting customer service directly. “Their reaction time is speedier than being put on hold,” said Sydney Owen, 24, a public relations intern from Chicago who recently tweeted about a Southwest boarding pass she had misplaced and received a nearly immediate response from the airline.
The immediacy of Twitter is also what appealed to Tony Haile, 32, the general manager of Chartbeat, a Web analytics site in New York City. When he noticed that the in-flight movies on Virgin America’s New York-San Francisco route hadn’t changed in several weeks, he tweeted, “How many months have to go by before Virgin America change their movies.” What happened next, Mr. Haile said, “absolutely gobsmacked me.” Moments later, Virgin America responded with an apology and an explanation: “We’ve faced a loading delay the last couple of weeks, so it will likely by June 1.”
“I never ever had that level of customer service before,” Mr. Haile said.
Getting a quick response through Twitter is one thing; getting a resolution is another. After Evan Reeves, 27, a Web developer from Portland, Ore., spent an hour on the phone with Travelocity, trying to redeem a credit for a future flight, he jokingly posted the following tweet: “@travelocity your hold times are whack, bro. 56 minutes and counting!”
“It was more of a way for me to vent than to actually get any results,” Mr. Reeves said. Even though, Travelocity quickly tweeted back with an offer to help, Mr. Reeves didn’t hear back from anyone after responding with his contact information.
“I finally called them back on the phone after all the twitter nonsense, talked with a gentleman for about half an hour or so investigating my options,” he said.
While many travel companies have yet to embrace Twitter, including Continental Airlines, others are using it in creative ways to connect with customers. In May, Hyatt Hotels created a Twitter profile, @HyattConcierge, to assist guests with anything a real-life concierge would do, like dinner reservations and spa appointments.
Omni Hotels has been monitoring Twitter to offer guests surprise perks. For example, Kevin Colón, 35, a pastor from Superior, Colo., twittered about his plans to watch the Final Four college basketball championships in April with friends at the Omni Interlocken Resort near Denver. The marketing people at Omni noticed the tweet and notified the hotel. When the group arrived they were escorted to a reserved table with a good view of the TV and offered a free round of beers.
“They treated us all like V.I.P.’s,” said Mr. Colón, who added that he now plans to tweet all the time about his travel plans. “We were very impressed.”
Whether or not the special treatment will continue as Twitter becomes more popular is another thing. Mr. Johnston of JetBlue said he didn’t want its Twitter account to become a “back channel” for passengers to “sneak around” customer service. Rather, he views JetBlue’s Twitter profile as an “information booth” to point customers in the right direction.
Not to mention that complicated travel issues would be hard to solve in 140 characters or less — the limit placed on the length of Tweets.
“I think it’s a great way to have your voice heard,” said Christi Day, a spokeswoman for Southwest who works on the airline’s Twitter feed. “I don’t know if that’s the best way to have your problem solved.”
Alan Davidson is the founder of ThroughYourBody.com and the author Body Brilliance: Mastering Your Five Vital Intelligences, the #1 bestselling Health & Welness book and winner of two National Book-of-the-Year awards.
Alan is also the author of the Free report “Body Breakthroughs for Life Breakthroughs: How to Peak Your Physical, Emotional, Mental, Moral, and Spiritual IQs for a Sensational Life” available at www.throughyourbody.com
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