Editor’s note: Did you know that KLM guarantees a reply to every tweet within 60 minutes? And @DeltaAssist will reply to all tweets within 10 mins and resolve your issue within 24 hours? How do they provide such customer service online? To answer these questions, we asked the super-exuberant Jenn Seeley from Radian6 to shed some light on the issues through a guest post.

Jenn is a Community Engagement Specialist at Radian6 in the worlds of travel & aviation. She loves take-offs, landings and in-flight snacks. You can tweet with her @jenn_seeley as she welcomes sharing and engaging.

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Many airlines have boarded the social media plane for managing customer service  – some are just taking off at greater speeds than others. What can you do to ensure your airline is soaring higher than ever and delivering the service your customers dream of? Let’s break it down in five easy steps!

Always begin with a plan!

So, you can see your customers from time to time talking about you online. You hear them loud and clear. However, projects without a strategy can be a waste of efforts, energy and resources. Sure, you are going to want to reach out and fix every issue you find immediately when you begin to listen, but a well thought out and developed plan is going to take you the extra mile.

A plan starts out simply with knowing what tools you will work with, what training you will need to use those tools properly and who is going to be behind them. Will you have a team of many? Or just one pilot to steer the plane? This previous Simplifying infographic on Integrated vs Dedicated social media teams is a great review if you are at the planning stage. Know what your end goal is and begin to piece together what the entire project looks like.

Your plan should involve a playbook. You may include how and if you will respond, for example. You can take a look at the playbook Radian6 uses, but please do not feel as though it’s a perfect fit for YOUR team and instead use it as a guide to get your creative juices flowing.

Do what feels right for your goals, just make sure you document it and everyone involved follows the rules. Consider your playbook a living document and make changes as needed – just ensure the whole team has access to every update and acts accordingly.

By now you should be feeling fired up! You’ve found your customers and your playbook is tucked neatly under your arm on your iPad. So now what?

Finding your customers

Sure, they’re in line at the gate waiting to board your newest Boeing 787. They’re probably killing time checking in to Foursquare, sending out one last Tweet about their upcoming vacation or emailing a lead to a colleague back at the office. You could always walk up to them and say hello, but with social media and smart technology, you don’t need to. In fact, the best place to reach out and say ‘hey’ is right where they are active and that is what you need to learn first.

Customer service is more than just waiting for someone to tell you directly that they are upset with you or that they need something more out of a relationship with you. Good customer service stems from having a mutual respect and understanding for one another. Knowing where you’re being talked about and in what context helps you immensely.

Identifying where your customers are talking is key. Knowing a few popular social media sites is a great start, but take this knowledge a step further and really dig into the kinds of conversations being had in each of these online outlets. In this case, popularity contests matter. The popular online ‘hang out’ is where you will want to invest time connecting with your customers.

In the example below you will see ‘where’ people are talking about WestJet Airlines over the last two weeks online. You can see that Twitter (micromedia) is where most of the conversation about this airline is happening. It would make the most sense, then, to start with Twitter if you have not already taken to tweeting.  (image via Radian6)

Be friendly, be real and be available

A smile – whether literal or virtual – can set the friendly tone, so practice conveying those ‘smiles’ and showing off your friendly face via social media. Social media has a fantastic ability to reach the masses, but it can be a balancing act to be succinct and deliver a helpful response in 140 characters or less while ensuring the right tone is felt. You may be hidden behind a laptop in a command room of some sort but your customers want to feel as though you are that smiling, helpful face behind the ticket counter in the airport.

There is no need to feel pressured to be always ‘on’, just identify what you can handle via your social channels and when. The following three airlines all have a different schedule or approach to interacting with their customers on Twitter. KLM has a 24/7 strategy, British Airways has team hours posted and JetBlue lets you know up front that there’s a link they’d prefer you to use for customer complaints. Whatever your plan, make it known and stick to it. Upset customers are especially grateful that you care to listen at all, so make it count.

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Know your customers

How is knowing your customers different from finding them? Finding someone at a party and smiling across the room does not mean you know them. Being personable and friendly and even lending an ear while they share their most recent troubles with you is a step in the right direction – but still does not earn you BFF status alone.

Your customers have put themselves out there on the social web and are allowing you many opportunities to know them better. You can easily impress your customers by adding a personal touch to your response. Perhaps one of the greatest examples of knowing your customers is the KLM Surprises campaign. Maybe one day your airline will knock them off of top spot for that honor!

Finally – Engage!

The actual act of interacting with your customers and providing the best service comes last on this list of five. Why? Because your engagement will be more successful if you first know a little bit about your customers, where they are at and you have your winning smile and helpful voice at the ready.

Remember to follow the guidelines you have created for your team to help deliver consistent customer service across the board. Your customers are watching and yes, they are even judging you. Now is your chance to make a stellar impression!

Remember, they’re steps. Take them one at a time. Though there may be turbulent skies as you soar into your social media customer service model, having a plan of attack will ensure smoother flights ahead.

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