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:
@MarketingProfs Just one way we like to keep a smile on your face! #YouAboveAll
— 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.
Barbara Kimmel says
Ann- thanks for the article about Jet Blue. They may be among the “best of the worst” but their “You Above All” is being diluted by their new “extra leg room” seats policy. In a recent booking, the airline did not allow for the selection of seats. Instead, they assigned us to the last row. The only way to upgrade was to “pay up” an additional $30.00 per seat, and that is not a “You Above All” mentality. It’s extortion.
I also had a “first” on a flight back from Puerto Rico last week. I was sitting in row #2 (after paying up) and the pilot needed to use the bathroom, at the same time as I did. A “half door” was swung closed prohibiting passengers from using the bathroom. While I “get” the security part, I was told, rather brusquely, by the male steward “self proclaimed security guard” to return to my seat. Apparently I could not be standing while the pilot was “doing his business” 🙂 Maybe they should change their slogan to “We Above You” or “When the Pilot Pees, Please Don’t Sneeze”
Barbara, best of the worst isn’t say much at all- is it? My experiences with JetBlue have of late been horrid, their flight attendants have a lot of very bad attitude. Maybe there is some internal situation that the general public does not know about, until another investigative reporter experiences first hand and becomes curious enough about to write.
Tinu Abayomi-Paul says
First, wow you’re a great writer. I forget that until I read something you wrote again. “like coins into a Vegas slot machine” – ctfu!
B, love what you said about social media being an opportunity. Social media facilitates ways to say and show you care in real time, is how I like to think of it. I used to encourage my newsletter subscribers to find where I screwed up that day so I could publish it in the next issue with their name.
I really just needed some extra help for the days when my hands swell and “fat finger typos” become more reality than I’d like. But they started to read everything I put out so intently. And they were always SO nice about corrections… I wonder sometimes how much better that would work with social media – but can’t think of how to make it scale on my end.
Anyway, I always Always fly JetBlue to Boston. They have their own wheelchairs, handy because I always need chair assistance to the gate, but Boston is one of the airports where the wait is long enough to occasionally miss your flight.
But that’s just one detail – the main reason is that they seem to be prepared to soothe you for any travel hiccup. I know planes can’t always take off on time – but I ‘d rather be on the airline that I know will try to make it bearable, if not fun, for me.
I have my favorites for everything else, but especially for short flights, I love JetBlue too. Good to see I’m not alone, and that they keep to their slogan, even when there might be no one looking. 🙂
Interesting in light of all the flack JetBlue is taking right now. Your Chicago experience was met by empowered employees who were committed to making up for delays that went beyond their control. And your right, most of all, I just want to feel the company employees cares and they communicate thoughtfully. Delays happen.
I wonder what really happened on Aditya Mukerjee Jetblue flight and if fear served up by the TSA and the police fueled the thoughtlessness shown by Jetblue employees in the moment. Or if we even have the whole story. Doubtful. Maybe, companies deserve the benefit of the doubt before we lash out at them.
Such a treat to find you in my In-Box.
Me (while reading this): “Oh, so you don’t like getting texts from me?”
Ann Handley: “Only cause I wanted to get home, stupid! Read it.”
Such a wonderful Mommy.
Morgan Johnston says
Thanks for the wonderful account Ann, both of the actions of the Social Media Spoort team, and the Chicago crew working to keep you and the other customers waiting for their flight informed and entertained. It’s true, we can’t always control nature and its impact on flights, but we can have some say over how we respond to it. Thanks for being understanding.
And to Barbra who chimed in on the comments, I’m sorry if you weren’t satisfied with your original seat assignments, though our core seats have some of the best legroom of any comparable airline out there. We offer the extra legroom seats to those that are interested in upgrading their experience though, and you were certainly not required to purchase them. We don’t overbook our flights, so even if you had walked up with a ticket and no seat assignment, you would still have been guaranteed a seat on the plane, no additional fees required.
As for the security procedure while a pilot is out of the cockpit. I’m glad you are able to acknowledge the reasons why that may be important. If you needed to use the bathroom, there are also restrooms at the rear of the plane, but we don’t want people gathering at the front, particularly in those situations.
Morgan from JetBlue
Ann Handley says
Thanks for commenting here, Morgan. Appreciate it.
Barbara: As I said, JetBlue isn’t perfect. And yes, the industry has woes. But that moment in Chicago was pretty close to a perfect handling of a situation I’ve seen in a long time, and it definitely deserved some props!
Katybeth: Hi! And thanks. 🙂
Caroline: Don’t you have homework?
And @Tinu: THANK YOU! : )
Barbara Kimmel says
Morgan- I don’t believe our “assigned seat” placement in the last row was by accident. I certainly don’t want to sit next to the bathroom. If our original assigned seat had been in Row 3, we would not have upgraded.
Great post Ann, thanks for sharing the experience! It’s always nice when a travel company in particular actually over deliver on their promises. We’re all rather too used to waits without explanation, and all sorts of angst brought on by information asymmetry. It’s really easy for companies to stand out from the crowd by doing simple things like this, and God forbid, appear as if they actually care about their customers.
It’s too bad, my experience is that I didn’t find that the stews or stewardesses at JetBlue were the least bit “stand out from the crowd”….with the exception of being incredibly rude and gossiping about passengers loud enough for other passengers to hear it. On my Saturday flight from BOS to PBI, I kept my headphones on to muffle out the sniping banter about several passengers. The girl next to me was on the verge of crying. Will either keep from the back of the plane or avoid the airlines altogether!
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Ann- Thanks for the wonderful article and for tweeting us on your twitter. Keila and I worked really hard that night and take a lot of pride in our work. We love our job and sometimes a little fun helps us and the customers when it comes to delay flights. It it always wonderful to hear stories like these from our customers. It really shows that we do make a difference. We hope to see you soon at ORD. Take care! 🙂
Alan Kelly says
Thanks for sharing this story with us Ann. I felt good reading your story and about your happy experience. Nothing like being assured that you are cared for – especially in the light of the 2 hour delay, the response of the crew on duty was really awesome. Goes to show the length the company went to train their staff, and bring in a culture to make their slogan “you above all” a reality than just a marketing/branding gimmick.
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