Interviewing the Man Behind the Social Media Strategy at American Airlines, Part 1 (Across the Aisle)

Last week, I had the chance to speak with Jonathan Pierce, the Director of Social Communications for American Airlines. I like what American has been doing particularly with Twitter, so I wanted to learn more from the man behind it all. Even after trimming the interview down, it still ended up being long enough that I’m going to split this out over two posts. Today, you’ll learn more about how he ended up in the job and where he wants to take the team strategically. Tomorrow, we’ll get a little more into specific issues, including how they handle crises.

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Cranky: I appreciate you taking the time to talk. I really like what you’ve been doing on Twitter and in general in social media. When did you start at American?

Jonathan: It’s actually been 11 years now. I came over from London, as you can tell from the little accent, in March last year to take on this position. I think you’re aware we sort of dabbled in social and our agency partners at Weber were helping us community manage and helping social response. We very quickly realized in order for Across the Aisle from American Airlinesus to truly grow and social to be integrated in the business and offer customer support, we had to create an in-house team. That was our early focus, early last year.

What differentiates American from other airlines is that we have created a, sort of a cliche, but it’s a one-stop shop for the customer. No matter what you come to us for on Twitter or Facebook or other channels, we want to have a team in place that can handle it there on the spot.

Cranky: So you came over to Ft Worth and started putting this team together. When did you get the point where you felt you were at a good place with the team? Just trying to think how long this took to put together.

Jonathan: We hadn’t decided upon the strategy when I came over. There was a period of understanding the expectations of the role from the business perspective but also what our customers were saying. The volume of conversations, where they were happening, getting to know people on the team and then just pulling my thoughts together. That was probably a six month process before we started making the moves to work with different functions across the organization. I think we started in August of last year to take a couple folks from our reservations department and train them up, retrain them on understanding how to transfer their skills into a public written environment which is a very different skill-set. So we were up and running by September last year and we’ve continued to grow the team since then.

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Cranky: For this initiative, where did the mandate come down from? Was this a top of the chain thing? Was it marketing?

Jonathan: We’re housed in the communications group, not in marketing. It really came down from our Vice President of Communications, who at the time was Roger Frizzell and my current VP is Andy Backover. The leadership comes from him for ultimately where social is going and advocating that.

Cranky: So there had to be buy-in from elsewhere, otherwise you’d never be able to pull people from reservations, right?

Jonathan: I mean, that’s really my job. My job is to go and win hearts and minds across different parts. I spent lots of time on presentations to help them understand what is social, how it’s impacting the company and customers. Reservations, I was very fortunate, has a leader who understands social very well and understands the impact. So we partnered together to find the resource. My job since then is to work with supporting functions, so like flight service, maintenance, and cargo, those kind of groups who we occasionally get questions for but really it’s about how processes are going to be integrated.

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Cranky: The idea is that if somebody writes in to you, you want to be a front door so you have the resources to go elsewhere and get answers.

Jonathan: Correct. At the moment, you take your reservations agent who previously only used to do reservations. We’re also cross training in broader skill. They now have a basic understanding of customer relations, media relations, baggage services, AAdvantage customer service. They’re able to handle the large majority of general customer inquiries. It’s only when it becomes more specialized, or a legal issue that they route the customer elsewhere.

Cranky: Are they housed within the reservation team still or have you pulled them out?

Jonathan: I’ve pulled them out. The headcount still resides in reservations, but they have effectively relocated to a different part and they are full time working for me in a different building.

Cranky: Are there special tools? Is there something about the workspace that’s different?

Jonathan: Not yet, no. But we’d like to go that way eventually. The reason why we relocated them is we just wanted everybody talking to each other. To have a reservations person sitting next to somebody in customer relations and media response, we’re able to respond in minutes instead of hours because people can just share knowledge.

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Cranky: Tell me about the make-up of the team. How many people and what areas?

Jonathan: We’ve grown extremely rapidly. We’re now at 15. It’s not a number I like to share simply because it’s evolving so quickly. Nine of those are customer service. How it works is there are 6 reservations folks, 2 customer relations folks, and a manager who handle the customer service function. The other six is myself, two community managers who manage all the channels we’re on (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Facebook, Google Plus, and YouTube). Managing that portfolio, messaging strategy, content strategy, etc. We have two folks who are doing promotions, engagement, video, and then we have one person who is dedicated to analysis, monitoring reports, metrics and capturing what the customer is saying about the brand, trends, and relaying that internally and also using the insights to optimize our posts, optimize our content, and generally provide dashboards on what the customer is saying.

Cranky: I imagine you use that to sell internally.

Jonathan: You’ve got it. It’s a critical role.

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Cranky: With this team, do you have an end goal or is evolving?

Jonathan: It’s still evolving. The end goal really is for American to be a social business. My vision of what that is is for us to be a lot more closely connected to the entire customer experience. As we continue to roll out wifi across the fleet and we give our flight attendants and pilots and agents devices to stay connected, my vision is that the social team is that are a lot more connected to the point of delivery of customer service. If you tweet while you’re sitting on an aircraft, we’re able to see that tweet come in and find the people who are delivering that service at the point of customer service and close it out very quickly. The technology enhancements that we’re making as an airline are starting to connect those dots. That’s where I want us to go in the next 12 to 18 months. In the meantime, we’re really just focused on continuing to bolster our customer service, inspire travel with the content we’re sharing, and just understanding our customers more who are coming to us on social and doing a better job at segmenting them and figuring out who’s who. And how impactful their voice is, and ultimately understanding who these new influencers are within the social space.

Cranky: It sounds like maybe the toughest work is internal, connecting the pieces together and getting them to work together.

Jonathan: I won’t say it’s the toughest, but for an organization of this size, there’s a small amount of people who really truly understand what the customer is saying on social channels but a very large number of people who have to understand the impact of it and how it can ultimately change their world, so it’s really just a case of time and persistence and working through the organization and helping key people adopt it.

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Cranky: I want to go back to the point about flight attendants getting tablets. Have you been intimately involved with this process?

Jonathan: No, I haven’t been intimately involved. It’s a vision of mine that the logical next step is as our agents improve and have more devices that they can be connected as well. I think it’s an opportunity for us to improve our communications to provide a more personalized customer service. It’s not something we’re actively developing right now but it’s something I’m aiming to achieve.

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Look for part two tomorrow.

8 Responses to Interviewing the Man Behind the Social Media Strategy at American Airlines, Part 1 (Across the Aisle)

  1. Wow AA found six reservation agents who know something about the company? Who would have thought. Anyone who calls reservations knows it’s almost a waste of time, seems people who don’t work for the airline know more then those that do.

    • Chris says:

      Putting away the sarcasm for a few seconds, the risk by having 2 different experiences from 2 different teams is if they are much more efficient than “regular” phone reservation agent, they’ll soon be overwhelmed with queries !!!…

  2. JayB says:

    By the time one has to put something in writing, the damage often has been done. The problem many of us have is that there is no human being “on the spot” to hear our problems, listen to our complaints, and try, I say try to make things better.

    Like when you go to the gate check-in desk rep and you have an issue, but suddenly the rep says sorry, I have to go board the flight. One person, the face of the airline to the customer, but unable to provide full-time customer service.

    Nip the problems right then and there will adequate, knowledgable, empowered staff. Save the “team” for handling my complaints about the “code-shares,” “opeated-bys,” and the “change-of-gauge” matters.

  3. Oliver says:

    Why does it often take days or weeks to get a reply to an email request (not a comment specific about American) while the companies seem to fall over themselves to get a reply out via Twitter right away? If the desire is to provide good service, then email should be a better medium as you don’t have those message size limitations. But since there is no one else watching what you’re doing, it’s apparently not as important to be seen responsive.

    • CF says:

      Oliver – I think the reason is that people see Twitter as a real time medium. Nobody is sending an email to an airline asking for help because they’re going to miss their connection. But that happens on Twitter all day long. So it can keep people off the phones and away from the gate agents by making the process very efficient. I’m not suggesting that it isn’t important to respond in a timely manner via email, but I am saying it’s less important.

    • Scott says:

      Completely agree. It’s the trendy thing to do (answer via Twitter) right now, when in reality all inquiries should be dispatched to the same group with the same velocity. Had a very frustrating time with AS the same way; customer service via email (which promises 24hrs) took a week, but twitter took an hour. That’s just wrong.

  4. Pingback: Interviewing the Man Behind the Social Media Strategy at American Airlines, Part 2 (Across the Aisle) - >> The Cranky Flier

  5. Old article, I know, but I wonder if Jon (or Stephanie) knows that AA’s Facebook admins use sockpuppet Facebook accounts to bully customers with legitimate customer service questions? I was shocked to learn this recently.

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