Twitter, travel and the power of the engaged employee

The following post originally appeared on the Harvard Business Review Blog Network.

I travel a lot, as do many of the executives I talk to. So when I give a speech and ask audience members to describe the last time they told their friends to avoid doing business with a company, airlines provide a reliable source of horror stories.

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I have my own horror stories, of course. But during Hurricane Irene's approach to the eastern seaboard, I personally had an encounter that might be better called a love story.

Like many travelers, my plans — a cruise in the Atlantic with my family — were severely disrupted by Irene. To avoid the storm, our cruise line initially told us they would try to outrun Irene, getting us into port a day ahead of schedule. That meant I had to rebook my family's return air travel before we set sail, so I went online, happily paid the schedule change fees, and rebooked for all four of us.

Then came the curveball: Just as we were supposed to head out to sea, our captain informed us we couldn't outrun the storm after all. We would, instead, be arriving in port a day later than originally planned. I would have to rebook again. But that would make the total cost of change fees more than I had spent on the tickets in the first place. It was time to call the airline.

Unfortunately, the recording on JetBlue's reservation line said there would be an estimated 25-minute wait. Determined not to pay more in cell phone roaming charges than change fees, I hung up. What options did I have for changing our travel plans without incurring ridiculous charges?

So I noted my frustration on Twitter — something lots of customers do. "Struggling to figure out how to deal with return from vacation during Irene's wrath. @JetBlue phone lines jammed up with 25+ minute waits." I was just venting — Irene caused the problem, not JetBlue — and I didn't expect any response.

But JetBlue responded! They asked me to send them my phone number. Ten minutes later, Kathy, an efficient and helpful agent, called to help me rebook my flights. Not only did she rearrange our flights, she did it with no additional change fee! And she did it fast.

And then she turned a nice experience into something truly remarkable: "Mr. Markey, can I refund the change fee you paid for the rebooking you did yesterday? Can I refund that to the card you used to pay those fees?" I hadn't even put that issue on the table — and hadn't been planning to.

Can you imagine this happening at one of the other big U.S. airlines, the "legacy carriers"? I can't. But maybe I shouldn't have been so surprised that JetBlue did it. JetBlue is tied with Southwest as the loyalty leader in the US airline industry. Bain colleague Fred Reichheld and I cite both airlines as examples of service-oriented companies in our new book. Both airlines strive, for example, to avoid the sorts of "bad profits" that anger customers on even the sunniest flying days of the year.

For airlines that claim to be devoted to service, however, a hurricane is a great test of whether that culture is truly embedded in its frontline employees — or just in its advertising copy.

Why do most travelers get so upset when their travel is disrupted for something so obviously threatening as a hurricane? Would they prefer to ignore the experts, strap themselves and their kids into the plane, and fly off into the teeth of the storm?

Of course not.

They're angry because they get lousy information and rude treatment at a time when they're tired and vulnerable. And let's be fair: The harried gate agent is also having a pretty bad day. Conflict is almost inevitable.

That's why many firms that make customer service a true priority use the same systems to measure and promote employee engagement as they do for customer loyalty. Service-oriented firms like JetBlue, Apple Retail, Rackspace, and even my own consulting firm all use the same basic process, language, and framework for gathering feedback from employees as they do from customers.

The agent I spoke to was clearly working hard that day — but she was solving people's problems and receiving gratitude, not abuse. JetBlue focuses serious effort on putting agents like Kathy in a position to "wow" customers every day, not just during times of duress, like Irene. It hires carefully, in the first place, and then solicits regular feedback from employees on what can be done to help them more consistently earn the praise and gratitude of customers.

That's a good reason to come to work.

Of course, having written about JetBlue, I know more about its inner workings than the average customer. In my next post, I'll go into more detail about how JetBlue and companies like it put employee engagement on par with customer loyalty.

But even if I didn't know all the reasons Kathy was so focused on helping out my family during Hurricane Irene, I'd still sound like a commercial for them. And isn't that what every company wants from its customers?

This series of posts from Rob Markey highlights the ideas in a new book by Fred Reichheld and Rob, The Ultimate Question 2.0: How Net Promoter Companies Thrive in a Customer-Driven World (HBR Press).