Crisis Communications: Stopping a misunderstood customer service experience from going viral

A photo of empty seats on a Southwest Airlines airplane
“Southwest Airlines” by Kevin Dooley, via Flickr Creative Commons is licensed under CC BY 4.0

Recently, a friend gave me a copy of the Aircraft Owners and Pilot’s Association’s (AOPA) Flight Training magazine to read an article subtitled Who really suffers after an airline incident goes viral.

The article highlights a couple of recent airline customer service experiences, such as a man being dragged-off a United Airlines flight, and how could have been solved in more productive ways. It also argues that, had the whole story of some of these recent incidences been what the public saw, the court of public judgement may have judged the incidences differently.

The latter point is what interested me, as it emphasizes one of the most fundamental principles of crisis communication: If you don’t give people the whole story, they will make up the information they are missing.

And it gives us a way to potentially solve the issue. Customer service representatives need to make sure that EVERY time they discuss they issue, they give the full story and preferably in every sentence. 

In the case of two teenage girls not able to board a United flight because they were wearing leggings, the reason was that they were using “buddy passes” which have strict dress codes. While I wasn’t there and can only surmise what happened, I’m guessing the gate agent, who was probably in a rush, probably said something like “Sorry, you two are’t properly dressed to board this flight” when the Shannon Watts (the woman who complained about it on twitter) overheard. What’s missing from the above version? The full story about them being on buddy passes.

What would it look like to explain the full story in this situation?

Gate agent: You are traveling on a free buddy ticket and your outfit does not meet the dress code for using a free buddy ticket.

Ladies: What?

Gate agent: You are traveling on a free buddy ticket and your outfit does not meet the dress code for using a free buddy ticket. Do you have something else you can change into that meets the dress code for using a free buddy ticket?

Ladies: We didn’t know that. What’s the dress code?

Gate agent: Here is the dress code for using a free buddy ticket. Do you have something else you can change into that meets the dress code for using a free buddy ticket?

But this is hard, gets redundant and takes time in a stressful situation, so people start taking shortcuts.

Gate agent: You don’t meet the dress code, is there something else you can change into?

Reading the above, you can see how, if someone just heard this statement, they could start making-up the rest of the story.

While giving the full explanation each time may not fully prevent customer service issues from going viral and it may make things worse if it frustrates the customer (more trial of this is needed to understand and refine), it can prevent others who are overhearing the conversation from making up their own story and creating a viral crisis via social media.

And when you find yourself on the flip side and the person who overhears, PLEASE take a minute to find out the rest of the story before you pass judgement. I know, easier said than done, and I mess this up all the time, but the more we do this, the less issues we will all have.

 

 

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