JetBlue’s Twitter homepage (Photo: Twitter)
It’s 6 a.m. on the East Coast, and the check-in kiosks have stopped working at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City, causing massive lines.
“What am I in for today?” Michelle Steadman, one of the social media staffers for JetBlue, asked herself that morning a couple of hours before dusk, as she logged onto the airline’s Twitter account from her home computer in Utah. Steadman is one of an army of 25 (mostly stay-at-home moms) who operate on JetBlue’s social media frontline.
“I prepare for the worst. Sometimes people are really understanding, and sometimes they aren’t. Sometimes they just need to vent their frustrations, and we are the target. You can’t take any of it personally. We have to turn the other cheek while they are yelling at us,” Steadman says about operating the airline’s Twitter feed.
One Twitter user, @Zjlord, was stuck in a line so long at the Queens, N.Y., airport that she missed her flight.
Steadman tweeted her through it. She told her to get a supervisor, who might be able to rush her through security. Steadman reached out to someone at the gate to see if it was still possible to get @Zjlord there in time.
“We are always looking for the best option. We can’t fix everything, but we can always see if there is some avenue that has been overlooked,” Steadman said.
Unfortunately, @Zjlord still missed her flight.
“She has been really nice,” Steadman said. “She could have been mean.”
Sometimes they’re mean. The next tweet that came in was mean:
"I can pretty much guarantee I’ll never fly with @JetBlue again"
Steadman took a deep breath before she tweeted back:
"That’s not something we ever want to hear. Is there something we can do to help?"
“We have to keep our cool and remember that these people are frustrated,” Steadman says. “Maybe there is a good reason for whatever they are complaining about.”
Why Should Airlines Care About Twitter Anyway?
Today, JetBlue is widely recognized as one of the most responsive and entertaining air carriers on social media, due in large part to the fact that the content is always on brand message in addition to being light and oftentimes witty.
"JetBlue has been spot-on in terms of using social media in ways that really engage consumers, and it’s been doing this for much longer than your average brand has," explains social media expert Caroline McCarthy, the vice president of communications at advertising company true[X] and editor of its blog Media Future. “They’re committing to a few social platforms, and they’re really succeeding with them.”
But back in 2007, Morgan Johnston, a manager in corporate communications at JetBlue, was operating a one-person show via the @JetBlue Twitter handle. With no concrete strategy, Johnston was mostly playing around with the new technology. Then he noticed that people were asking him questions — mostly customer service queries about flight times and delays. Unsure of the answers, he began to tap into the airline’s customer service staff based in Salt Lake City.
Three members of the customer support team sat up and took notice of Johnston’s questions. One of them was Laurie Meacham, a mom of two, who joined the company in 2006, when she moved with her husband, a property manager, to Salt Lake City.
“I said, ‘This is huge. We’ve got to do this,’” Meacham, now the manager of customer commitment, told me recently from her Salt Lake City office, where her cheerful blue walls are covered in oil paintings of popular memes like Grumpy Cat and the Ikea monkey. Later in 2007, Meacham and three other customer service colleagues began staffing the Twitter account 24/7 answering questions. By May of 2009, they had 500,000 followers. By August, they hit a million. Today they have 1.87 million followers.
“We were having these conversations and building relationships on Twitter,” Meacham said. “By October of that year, we knew we were proud of what we built, but we had to think about whether it was scalable.” Could social media be the team’s sole purpose? In 2010, the company decided that it could, and with 17 people, the JetBlue social media team officially launched, making them one of the first airlines to have such a team.
The real test of the team’s mettle came with Snowpocalypse, the blizzard that pounded the East Coast on Dec. 26, 2010, causing flights to be canceled across the country. Wait times for the airline’s customer service telephone line reached up to an hour.
“Customers began turning to social media to help. Each agent was helping six customers at a time,” Meacham recalled. “People felt like their voice was being heard on social media. It was stressful, and we were working all day and all night, but we loved it.
“That was an interesting beginning,” Meacham said. “It was when our team really proved that what we were doing was worthwhile. Now we really are the voice of the company.”
Michelle Steadman felt like a rock star that day.
“All people wanted to do was get home after the holidays, and it felt so good to be able to help them out. I felt like the coolest person on Earth because I could actually help these people who were really frustrated,” Steadman said.
Speaking in One Voice
In private the social media team refers to themselves by the code name “B6 Black Ops,” because when they first started out, no one else in the company really knew who they were.
The JetBlue social media team has a rare day in the office. (Photo: Lisa Stevens)
The airline’s social brand values are printed out in brightly colored ink and pinned on Meacham’s wall: NICE, SMART, FRESH, STYLISH, WITTY. It’s a reminder for how to craft each and every piece of social media that is produced by the company.
“If you think what you are going to say sounds canned, don’t say it,” Meacham said. “We tell people to scroll the replies. If you sound like a robot, then we are doing something wrong.”
Last November, traveler Brian Murray’s flight was delayed. He tweeted to the airline.
"Stuck in the airport waiting for @JetBlue flight. Who has a joke for me?"
Steadman, who was on duty, ran with it. “What washes up on tiny beaches?” she immediately asked.
Murray didn’t know. Under the cover of @Jetblue, Steadman tweeted back, “Microwaves ;)”
It continued from there. “I never want to sound like a corporate suit,” Steadman said. “We want to be ourselves, and we want the customers to know we care about them.”
Another rule is that the JetBlue social media team never engages just for the sake of engaging. “We talk about smart engagement,” Meacham said. “There is a lot of vanity engagement happening out there. People talking about nothing and responding about nothing. We always recognize that as a brand, we are a guest in this community. Brands came in uninvited. We need to earn the right to be here.”
For instance, if a customer is complaining about a flight delay, there isn’t much that any customer service agent can do. Flight delays happen.
“In that case, we often try to lighten the situation. We offer to tell them a joke on Twitter,” Meacham said. “Sometimes that works, and sometimes it doesn’t.
Just as important is knowing when to keep your mouth shut.
“You realize a person is unhappy, and you cannot make a difference. We never want to just make noise,” Meacham said.
During a flight in June, one toddler had an accident in her pants while in the seat of the plane. The flight attendant told the mother that it wasn’t the right time to go to the bathroom.
Without social media, this probably wouldn’t have been a story, but someone tweeted about it, and the story took off like wildfire across the Web. The mother also took to Twitter, saying that the trip was the worst flying experience of her life. Other passengers quickly came to her defense.
“In that instance, we just didn’t engage with the haters. There is no point at all,” Meacham said. The team activated a DNE: Do Not Engage.
“DNE is totally different from ignoring. We are taking note, and we will follow up where appropriate,” Meacham explained.
It got ugly. The story broke right before the airline was scheduled to launch its new premium service — Mint, a project that was a year in the making with a huge social media push behind it. Twitter traffic was unpleasant and high, so they shifted the Mint social strategy. They still launched a campaign across Twitter, but a lot of the copy had to be modified.
“Like it does with everything, eventually the tide turned, the sentiment turned, and the Twitter community moved on to something else, and we had a good launch,” Meacham said.
Working From Home
Michelle Steadman lives in a little town called Tooele, about 30 miles from the JetBlue headquarters, with her husband and four children. She has multiple sclerosis, which gives her limited mobility. Before taking this job, she had no social media background except for a personal Facebook account.
Steadman typically works the 4 a.m. to 10 a.m. ET shift and usually engages with about 18 customers before the sun rises over the Rocky Mountains.
The JetBlue social media team consists of 25 members working twelve shifts in a day, all of them from home. About 70% of them are stay-at-home moms. Before she joined JetBlue, Steadman hadn’t worked since she was 20 years old. This was her first job in 15 years.
“It is awesome that I get to work from home because otherwise it wouldn’t be possible. We would be looking at a 2 a.m. morning, and that wouldn’t work,” Steadman said. “This way, I can be near my kids and still be productive. My kids can still walk right up to me during the day.”
The shifts are flexible, and team members are allowed to trade them among themselves, but Steadman is the first to admit that no one ever wants to trade her for those early morning hours.
“We’re tapping into this very qualified, very educated workforce of people who have college degrees but don’t want to work outside of the home,” Meacham explained about employing stay-at-home moms. “They’re smart, and they’re excited about what they do.”
The busiest times of day are from about 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. on the East Coast.
“Travel is 24/7, but people are most engaged during the days,” Meacham said.
The @JetBlue handle gets about 1,500 Twitter mentions a day and about 50 Facebook mentions. The goal response time is 10 minutes, but the average is well below that.
They use Yammer as their internal social network, a recent switchover from Google Wave.
“Yammer has been great for us when things come up and we don’t know the answer to them,” Meacham said.
The team knows who you are most of the time. They do a little research, a mixture of Google and their internal booking system, Sabre, to find out full names and flight information so that they know exactly what they are dealing with at any given moment.
“If someone were to complain, ‘My flight is delayed,’ we can find the reservation and the flight and get them an accurate answer about what is happening,” Meacham said.
Often, the team volleys back responses to a particularly angry customer in an attempt to strike the right tone with someone who may be hurling expletives. Some days, answering questions on Twitter is like playing a very specialized game of Trivial Pursuit.
“We can’t make stuff up because you will get called out,” Meacham said knowingly.
People (mostly airline fanatics and teenage plane enthusiasts) ask absurd things — the record number of flights they have had in a month, the font on the website, or the Pantone number for the exact shade of JetBlue blue (One kid wanted to know so he could paint his room.).
Jeff Hoffman loves pizza almost as much as he loves Ron Swanson and professional wrestling. (Photo: Jeff Hoffman)
Jeff Hoffman typically works the overnight shift. His idol is Ron Swanson from the show “Parks and Recreation,” and that is his avatar on Yammer. Every night, he posts information to prep the team for the day. He lets them know if there is a particularly ornery customer or if a story has appeared somewhere about the airline overnight.
On a recent overnight handoff, Jeff let the team know that a passenger was angry about something.
@JetBlue just insisted wife remove my sleeping infant from her ergo-mom holder for takeoff. Has this ever happened to anyone else?
He gave a heads-up to the team that this was a person with 754,000 followers and they needed to provide a response fairly quickly. Javier from the operations team immediately chimed in to let Jeff know that for safety reasons, it was important for the baby to be on the parent’s lap and facing forward.
Yammer is also filled with inside jokes. Fridays are #KittenFriday for the JetBlue social media team. That’s the day that the team sends each other hilarious cat memes.
“We do have some cat haters on the team, which is kind of sad, but for the most part, people are pretty willing to contribute,” Meacham said.
Moments of Delight
From the very beginning, the team at JetBlue has pushed the envelope to use social media to delight their customers.
In one instance, a customer tweeted that she always wanted to be greeted by a parade when she landed.
The social media team gathered a group of staffers to greet her with party horns when she arrived. Likewise, if someone tweets about their birthday, a crew will often order balloons for that passenger and have them ready when the person makes it to their destination.
Social media team member Jeff Hoffman took delight to an entirely new level when a passenger named Gavin Donovan tweeted that he always wished someone would play entrance music for him the way they do for professional wrestlers on television.
Hoffman has been a fan of professional wrestling since he was 8 years old. He decided to do something about Donovan’s tweet.
“We emailed the airport manager and when Gavin showed up for his flight we had Hulk Hogan’s theme music playing. Now he is an even bigger fan of JetBlue than he was before,” Hoffman said.
Donovan now calls himself a “lifelong JetBlue customer.”
“This job makes me feel needed and valued,” Hoffman explained. “I never felt as necessary and important to an organization as I do here.”
One night, Johnny Barfuss, who works as a massage therapist when he isn’t working social media for the airline, was monitoring the Twitter account and saw that a woman in Salt Lake City airport, just 30 minutes away, was hungry and stuck.
Johnny left his house to deliver the woman a box of animal crackers.
In December 2012, just after the devastating shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, an aunt of one of the victims began tweeting all of the airlines. She was desperate to get a letter across the country to Connecticut to be buried with her nephew, but there wasn’t a lot of time to mail it.
Kathy Garcia was working the JetBlue account. She didn’t hesitate. By coordinating with JetBlue staff, she managed to get the letters from Seattle to JFK to Boston and to the boy’s family in time for the service.
“Kathy felt empowered to make that happen. She was just working from home late at night, and she made the decision to say yes,” Meacham said.
One of the goals of the JetBlue social team is to be as delightful as possible. (Photo: Sal Trejo)
“We don’t want to be a nameless, faceless company, and we don’t expect the social media team to be the heroes,” Meacham continued. “This is just another channel. No matter how you contact us, you should have a consistent experience, and it should be awesome.”
To that point, Meacham has a framed photo on her desk that reads: “How Are You Going to Be Awesome Today?”
Facebook versus Twitter
There may be several people managing the Twitter account at any given time, but there is typically only one crew member on Facebook. The team finds that the more they engage on Facebook, the more people will post there, but they don’t really want it to become a core customer service channel.
The JetBlue Facebook page (Photo: Facebook)
“That isn’t what it is for, and it isn’t the most productive place to work things out,” Meacham said. “It’s a great place for Q&A and for sweepstakes, but when people are having issues, it isn’t the best place to deal with them. There is only so much we can do on there. Unless we can start a back and forth conversation, then we can’t do anything for you.”
Twitter is the place where the team can have a quick dialogue.
“We like to find out about their intent,” Meacham said. “Are they genuinely trying to resolve an issue, or are they trying to just throw us under the bus in a very public way. We get both.”
After a lot of back and forth, Michelle Steadman figured out why her passenger was so angry with the airline, saying he would never fly JetBlue again. He was charged $150 in baggage fees.
Steadman, as always, stayed calm and collected.
She explained that the first bag is free and then mentioned that it would be cheaper to pack two suitcases than one overweight one.
“At least if he does decide to travel with us again, he’ll know not to bring an overweight bag,” Steadman said sunnily as she waited for a response.
The social media team is given a lot of autonomy to help customers. In a pinch, they can adjust flights and help to usher someone through security quickly if there is a problem. A lot of times, they will point them to the customer service phone lines if someone is adamant about having a fee waived. Plenty of people think that a public complaint on social media will automatically lead to a discount, a voucher, an upgrade, or the waiving of a fee.
“We can’t do that. It sends the wrong message when you are giving special favors,” Meacham explains.
The passenger did not appreciate Steadman’s tweet.
"Obviously I F*ing know that now which is why I’m not flying y’all in the future," they responded
Meacham, who was watching the exchange on her Yammer feed, just shrugged.
“You’d be surprised how often people like to tell us on Twitter that they will never fly us again,” Meacham said. “They’ll tweet us a month later telling us they are boarding a flight.”