What's the purpose of complaining?

Bloggers who complain about their bad experiences with airlines: outspoken but unrepresentative, or the tip of the iceberg? When one blogger details the kind of travel day we all hope to avoid, what purpose is served? Is any airline learning anything from all this, or is it just the new way to escalate a customer complaint?

It's been almost 18 months since stranded passengers incidents started making headlines (and passengers started organizing online). Since then, the conventional wisdom has accepted that the U.S. airline industry is broken. The new standard is to be thankful if the airline can get you to Point B, never mind on time or with a smile.

David Ignatius writes about the problems in his column in today's Washington Post. He included an amazing quote from Robert Crandall, the retired chairman/CEO of American Airlines:

Our airlines, once world leaders, are now laggards in every category, including fleet age, service quality and international reputation. Fewer and fewer flights are on time. Airport congestion has become a staple of late-night comedy shows. ... Airline service, by any standard, has become unacceptable.
—Robert Crandall, 10 June 2008
It's nice to see a top airline exec—even a retired one—state the obvious. Solutions, of course, are more difficult (Crandall has suggestions, of course). I'll resist the temptation to turn this into a post on the airline industry. Instead, let's think about the increasingly popular, blow-by-blow, travel nightmare post. Two recent examples:
In each case, a business traveler had a particularly unpleasant day of travel with his chosen airline, and neither airline satisfied him through the normal channels. Enter the complaint post.

Why complain?
Aside from the interesting reading about the bad luck of others—and face it, it's painfully fascinating stuff—what's the purpose of the complaint post? What are the benefits of complaining, in general as well as specifically about airlines?

  1. Escalation. One possibility (explicitly stated in Jaffe's post) is that the blogger is still looking for a resolution of the complaint after the failure of normal methods. A side effect of company listening is that blogs can become an alternative channel for customer service, which bloggers now know. Delta noticed Jaffe's post; so far, there's no sign that Continental saw Evelson's.

  2. Warning others. It's hard to think of a U.S. airline that doesn't have similar examples recently, but in less challenged industries, complaint posts can warn others of potential problems. From the blogger's perspective, it can be a valuable contribution to a community.

  3. Ulterior motives. Commenters on Jaffe's post make an issue of his work on behalf of American Airlines, which he discloses in the post. I don't question his motives (nor do I care), but it does raise the point that some may complain because of an interest in a competitor.

  4. Craziness. Complaints aren't always rational (not implying anything about the example posts!). Some people make a hobby of it and don't necessarily have a valid complaint.

  5. Venting. Sometimes, you just have to let it out at the end of a bad day. A blog provides a public spot for a very visible primal scream.
Company response to complaints
Regardless of motivation, companies need to know what's being written about them and be prepared to react appropriately. The response should be defined, in part, by an understanding of the motivation behind the complaint.
  1. Customer satisfaction. If customers are blogging in an attempt to receive service (escalation), companies need to decide whether and how to respond. Companies in the computer industry are answering this with formal links between customer service and social media monitoring activities. However, as David Churbuck points out, listening for customer service has side effects worth considering.

  2. Insight. Complainers have been known to have a valid point. Monitoring and analysis of online discussions can identify issues (or opportunities) that you're not aware of. While you're busy defending yourself, don't miss the opportunity to extract the insights that are available in both quantitative and qualitative forms.

  3. Online reputation management. After dealing with customer complaints and extracting insights, what's left is managing the fallout. Online reputation management combines a variety of strategies aimed at influencing search engine results, online conversations and, generally, opinions in the company's favor. This post is already too long to go into the details, but ignoring online complaints is not usually the recommended strategy.
Will McInnes says we're in a transitory Age of Snark, between the Age of Control and the coming Age of Dialogue. Customers are complaining publicly, because companies are too hard to reach. Regardless of the motivations behind the complaints, companies would be well served to pay attention and to respond appropriately.

As for the airlines, I think we're past the point of worrying about the reputation of any individual U.S. airline. The anecdotes cover too many companies. Now, the whole industry is the before picture in a turnaround story.

Research vendors: Is anyone working on an analysis of online discussions and airlines? I would think it could make a good source for the next industry-in-distress article in your favorite business publication.

About Nathan Gilliatt

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  • Voracious learner and explorer. Analyst tracking technologies and markets in intelligence, analytics and social media. Advisor to buyers, sellers and investors. Writing my next book.
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