When Annette Hernandez joined American Airlines' social media team a few months ago to oversee social customer service, she sat down with the group to brainstorm ideas for what the company's Twitter persona ought to be.
The team came up with a ton of words, she says: genuine, authentic, transparent, savvy, clear, professional, warm, upbeat. One thing it should never be, though? Scripted.
"It's part of our overall plan for our style and how we want to engage with customers," she says. "Every response will be different."
American operates with just one Twitter account for customer service and promotional messaging, says Stephanie Scott, who handles proactive messaging strategy, as part of the effort to be totally up front with customers. With nearly 400,000 followers, customers seem to appreciate the approach.
American's customer service team spends 18 hours a day—from 6 a.m. to midnight—answering customer questions and complaints. The team responds to every tweet with a hand-crafted, personal response.
"Our goal is to respond to every actionable tweet," Hernandez says. "What we mean by actionable is basically anything that's not a news feed coming in."
That sounds like a lot of time and work, but Hernandez says American makes it easier by bringing knowledgeable, experienced people onto the team. Many of them come from other customer service jobs at the airline, she says.
"We didn't look at it from how many people do we need to perform this type of service; we look at it for what type of person we need," Hernandez says.
There's no real formalized training for new members, she says, but the team uses a system that works fairly well.
"The best thing for us right now is to have those who are coming into the team sit and shadow a very experienced person," she says.
Customer service representatives use Hootsuite to reply to customer comments and avoid duplication. No one team member is assigned to certain types of complaints or questions; employees simply answer tweets in the order they're received.
Hernandez says her ideal time for responding to a tweet is about 10 minutes, but she knows that's not always possible. Sometimes, team members have to send questions to the appropriate department for an answer, for example.
Then there are the customers who vow never to fly American again. Sometimes, all you can say is, "We're sorry, and we hope you give us another chance," Hernandez says. For Advantage Elite members, there may be a process of linking them up with the customer loyalty department. Plus, there's the option of carrying on a conversation by direct message.
"We don't ask customers to DM us because we don't want things to be public," Hernandez says. "We do it mostly for privacy."
Occasionally, team members will find a tweet that mentions American and one of its competitors. Hernandez says her team is happy to contribute to those conversations, too, with "We're happy to have you any time. The welcome mat is out."
To look at American's Twitter page, it may look as though @ replies are all it's for, but Scott says that's not so. She and her team send out two to four tweets per day on a variety of topics, and because only certain users can see @ replies directed toward specific users, those tweets are what most followers see.
For example, a series of tweets on July 23 dealt with the announcement that American was going to have personal entertainment screens and inputs at every seat on its new planes. Each of those tweets linked to blog posts and videos where people could see more. Sometimes, tweets may link to fare sales or write-ups about events like taking a group of World War II veterans to visit the war memorial in Washington.
Some tweets include embedded videos, such as this one about where your checked bag goes after it rolls off on a conveyor belt. It's part of a series of behind-the scenes videos about topics such as de-icing and fares.
"The goal, basically, is to sort of demystify the airline industry and the process," Scott says. "People get very frustrated at times with the travel experience without understanding the complexity behind it."
American crowdsourced the topics of the videos, asking followers what they wanted to see.
Not every tweet includes a link, though. A few times a week, Scott and her team post "community building messages," which are often questions meant to kick off a discussion. They might ask, "If you could go anywhere in the world today, where would you go?" or "What do you always carry onto an airplane with you?"
One recent addition to the Twitter feed is what the airline calls its #Hello737 scavenger hunts. They're a way to inform customers that a hub has gotten a new plane, Scott says. There have been two so far, one in New York and another in Miami.
"It's designed to be an iterative process, so that each time we get a new aircraft, we'll have a new scavenger hunt in a hub city," she says.
For the first hunt, "We had about 15 people to turn out for about five different model airplanes and got a lot of buzz."
However, people on social media asked, "Why aren't you in my city?" So for the second contest, American added an online component. Users could go onto AA.com
and search around for a #Hello737 button to enter a sweepstakes for a 50,000 Advantage Miles.
Matt Wilson is a staff writer for Ragan.com.