Most commercial air travel experiences are exercises in endurance, not anticipation: “I suppose vacation will be fun, but I really can’t wait to spend 6 hours bouncing around in a cramped tin tube getting there!” said no one ever.
I would feel this way even if I didn’t hate to fly with a passion, which I do. There’s simply too much out of a passenger’s control to make flying most commercial carriers anything to celebrate: Tightly packed with strangers who may (or may not) be a pleasure to sit close to; mechanical delays; weather issues…
It was the latter that caused my flight from Chicago’s O’Hare to Boston to be delayed by two hours on a recent Friday night. Severe thunderstorms in the originating city had delayed our JetBlue plane, so it was late getting to O’Hare, which meant that it wasn’t where I expected it to be when I arrived at the gate Friday evening after a fun but exhausting day with the Entrepreneur magazine folks.
First it was to be an hour late, then 90 minutes, then two hours. At which point a text message popped up from my daughter: “When are you coming home?” Ugh.
Self-pity could’ve been the end of this story.
But it isn’t, because when I arrived at the gate, JetBlue agents had set out snacks and bottles of water, free for me and the 100 or so other stranded passengers. That was a nice touch, because I was thirsty. So was the toddler to my left, who—buckled into his umbrella stroller—was swigging free water in between accepting the free animal crackers his mother was slipping into him like coins into a Vegas slot machine.
The gate agent then resumed a trivia game that, I gathered, had been in progress for a while.
“Soccer is the national sport, but I have never won a world cup. My flag is red, white and blue. Who am I?” she announced over the loudspeaker.
“The Netherlands!” came a shout from the far wall.
Someone from the ground crew retrieved a pair of JetBlue headphones from the bin near the jet way door and delivered the prize to the winner.
In a few minutes came the next question: “I originate in Burundi, and I flow across Egypt into the Mediterranean Sea. What river am I?”
The woman playing on her iPhone on my right mutters absentmindedly to no one in particular, “The Nile.” She was right but she didn’t win; someone else shouted it out loud enough to hear.
And so this went on, sporadically, between frequent flight updates (Your plane should arrive within 90 minutes! Your plane should arrive in 25 minutes! We’ll have you out of here as soon as the crew cleans the cabin!)—as did frequent replenishing of the snack and water cart.
The mood at the crowded gate for our delayed flight was downright buoyant: If anyone was grouchy about the delay, they weren’t complaining. The trivia crowd was entertained. Even the toddler in the umbrella stroller had drifted off to a carb-induced sleep.
On the interwebs, I gave a shout out to JetBlue, which which responded using the #YouAboveAll mantra it had rolled out in 2010, signaling its brand promise of putting passengers first:
— JetBlue Airways (@JetBlue) August 9, 2013
Almost two hours after our scheduled departure to Boston, the lot of us were finally lining up to board the aircraft. When the ringleader of the most active trivia players boarded, the gate agent gave him a special shout over the PA system: “Now boarding: Gary! Our trivia champion!”
Let’s review all that was awesome here, and the biggest, broadest lessons for any brand…
A marketing slogan isn’t just a marketing slogan
JetBlue’s “You Above All” wasn’t just a slogan in Chicago that Friday night. And our marketing mantras shouldn’t be simply skin-deep for any of our organizations, either.
Rather, it should be ingrained in our organizational culture. Somehow the gate agents working the JetBlue counter Friday night felt empowered to commit what was maybe $30 worth of snacks and cheap branded headphones to create a customer service moment that was priceless.
It also had long-term loyalty implications—for me and probably anyone else at the gate that night. I was already a JetBlue customer, but guess what airline I’m feeling recommitted to checking first whenever I’m booking new travel? And guess what airline earned the benefit of social love to my 180,000 Twitter followers Friday night—and now to all of you?
Yeah, that one.
Here’s a photo of the woman who I think was the chief instigator of the magic in Chicago. She really was that cheery. JetBlue, give that woman a raise.
Free snacks & hydration at the delayed ORD>BOS gate > pic.twitter.com/WYvkrp8sv7
— Ann Handley (@MarketingProfs) August 10, 2013
Social media is an opportunity, not a solution
JetBlue isn’t perfect… No company is. Friday night, in addition to fielding my kudos for a job well done, those responsible for the JetBlue Twitter feed were also fielding complaints about weather delays and poor service.
JetBlue couldn’t fix everything, of course. It can’t make everyone happy. It can’t control when employees screw up or have a bad day. It can’t fix the weather. But here’s one simple thing Jet Blue did really, really well Friday night (and what it does all the time, consistently): It responds.
In other words, @JetBlue did what all of us can do, whether as brands or (for that matter) fallible human beings who sometimes disappoint people in our lives: Make the grumbler feel heard.
Fix things when you can, certainly. But when you can’t, an “I’m sorry, that sucks” goes a long way toward easing frustration and angst and building advocates who will take your side even when you screw up. (And we all do screw up.)
To me, the opportunity of social media is simply this: an opportunity to listen, to truly hear, to respond, to interact with and, occasionally, delight people, some of whom might be customers. And some of whom might not. In that way, it’s not unlike what Annie Dillard says about the sensation of writing, which she calls an “unmerited grace”:
“It is handed to you, but only if you look for it. You search, you break your heart, your back, your brain, and then—and only then—it is handed to you.”
Half of the effort, in other words, is simply doing the boring work of being present.
In Chicago that day, I had been talking with a group of 150 or so entrepreneurs who are struggling with how to implement social media and content programs at their own growing companies. So let’s end with a bit of trivia:
What airline is a good model of inspiration, for any-sized company, in any industry?
I think you know the answer.