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Disgruntled Customer 2.0 – Lessons Learned from British Airways in Brand Reputation

In just a couple of weeks, I will be flying British Airways  as I travel to speak at Interaction 2013,  an intranet conference in London that I’m really looking forward to and would ideally like to attend while fully dressed — I’m sure the attendees would appreciate it too. So, the recent firestorm regarding British Airways and the lost baggage incident on Twitter certainly peaked my interest. Painful as it for British Airways right now, it’s a great case study of many things: customer service, crisis communications, reputation management and social media presence.

Personally, I don’t know Mr Hasan or his entire situation. I also don’t know the standard operating procedures that British Airways has in responding to online tweets and comments.  But I do know that, in this digital age, things happen at LIGHTENING speed, and that companies, especially those who have a well-established online presence, must adapt to that speed or risk sacrificing their brand reputation.

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A Summary of What Happened

In case you haven’t been following the conversation surrounding this event, here’s a breakdown:

  1. Hasan Syed’s parents flew Business Class on British Airways from Chicago to Paris on Saturday, and realised that one of their bags had not made it to the belt in Paris.
  2. When there was no response from British Airways after two days, to help his dad, Mr Hasan bought promoted tweets on Twitter to get the airline (and the world’s) attention, highlighting the airline’s lack of customer service.
  3. In the first six hours since the tweet was promoted, it  garnered over 25,000 impressions on Twitter alone. This excludes coverage on wildly popular blogs like Mashable. (At  last count, that Mashable article alone had over 5000 shares on Twitter and Facebook combined just a few hours after being published.)
  4. British Airways responded to Mr Hasan about 7 hours after his tweet was published but only aggravated the situation by requesting Mr Hasan follow them so they could DM him when he was already a follower of the British Airways accounts.

British Airways’ (Lack of ) Response

To be fair to British Airways, none of the legs were flown by Mr Hasan’s parents were on the airline itself. The Chicago Newark leg was flown by American Eagle, and the Newark-Paris leg on OpenSkies. But the tickets were likely bought on

It doesn’t look like their US account replies to tweets, but the global account clearly states that they  reply after 9am GMT each day — Mr Hasan’s promoted tweets were outside of these hours. In an email to the social media team, airline brand agency,, learned that one of the key members of the team is out of office till next week. So the social media team was already stretched thin on manpower.

They did eventually issue this public statement:

“We would like to apologise to the customer for the inconvenience caused. We have been in contact with the customer and the bag is due to be delivered today,” British Airways told the BBC.

Dislike in a Viral World

In a recent blog post, Zendesk wrote “that when customers have a bad service experience, they don’t just get mad, most of the time they try to get even. A recent survey by ClickFox took a close look at what the repercussions are of a bad customer service experience. While 52 percent of disgruntled customers spout off to family and friends, an even more astounding 32 percent altogether will stop doing business with the company that wronged them. And when customers take to social media to air their ire, more than 60 percent of consumers are influenced by these detrimental comments.”

What Do Customers Hate Most About Bad Customer Service, infographic by @Zendesk

What Do Customers Hate Most About Bad Customer Service, infographic by @Zendesk

They continue by saying that “there’s a whole new school of loyalty that companies need to enroll in…and fast. It’s no longer good enough to sit around and wait for a bad customer experience to happen, and then react. Companies need to catch support disasters way before they happen.”

What We’ve Learned

We ALL have our off days. The British Airways social media team acted accordingly to the training and procedures they had at the time. Unfortunately for them, it just wasn’t enough and it created such a stormfire for them that I’m sure the rest of us are appreciating that it wasn’t us. But take it for what it’s worth, a lesson learned.

According to Simpliflying, here are five things we should think about doing, to avoid such a situation in the future.

  • Have a standard operating procedure (SOP) for such incidences. Customers venting their frustrations online is a common occurrence. So why not just have a process for handling such instances? If you start digging the well when you’re thirsty, it’s already too late.
  • Even if you don’t have an SOP, the customer service department needs to work with the social media team to create a proper escalation method for customer complaints online, especially those that have gone viral, like Mr Hasan’s. Just like there are escalation procedures for “offline” matters. A VP-level executive should be alerted immediately, so that the typical hierarchy doesn’t interfere and swift decisions can be taken.
  • Create a digital customer service, and crisis communications plan. This plan should help in all situations. The infographic below was created by Simpliflying for the airline industry, but it outlines a good plan for all companies.
    simpliflying crisis comms
  • Have an FAQ training for front-staff — a hands-on workshop that reviews solutions to frequent scenarios, like bag loss or flight delays, will help everyone be prepared better.
  • Finally, take a look at this Customer Service 2.0 in-house MasterClass — where 50 case studies are discussed, dive deep into free social media tools and come up with strategies for these types of situations.

Source: Disgruntled Passenger 2.0: Buys a promoted tweet against British Airways for losing bags. Airline customer service has changed,

In addition to above, I would add the following:

Always be listening and responding. If you have an online presence, especially a Twitter account where customers will naturally reach out to you, you must pay constant attention to the conversation, comments and mentions. Unfortunately, the internet doesn’t have “operating hours.” It’s open for business 24/7. Companies must anticipate feedback from customers 24/7 and plan accordingly. While a 7 hour response turnaround is efficient in traditional customer service standards, in digital media, 7 hours feels more like 7 days.

Sometimes you have to go off script. British Airways heightened customer anxiety by first supplying a canned response of “Please follow us so we can DM you” when Mr Hasan was already following British Airways. A simple quick look at Mr Hasan’s twitter account and British Airways would have seen that he already followed them. You need to balance response time with thoughtful response. Do your homework first by fully evaluating the situation rather than going by a script.

Ironically, British Airways recently launched a heart-warming Youtube campaign, Visit Mum, which went viral. But British Airways has learned, and what we can all learn from this experience, is the tides can turn very quickly. All we can do is learn and adjust, learn and adjust.

I’m a consumer who believes in good brands. And, to be honest, despite this recent incident, British Airways — a 7 billion dollar company as Mr Hasan says himself — is a good company, a good brand (IMHO). I still plan on flying them to London this month. So, here’s hoping that I’m able to speak while fully clothed!

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