Wings of Loyalty

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Jul 11, 2005
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By John Hennessy

Who is Cigarman and why is Larry Kellner, the CEO of Continental Airlines, having dinner with him?

It turns out that Cigarman’s real name is Dean Burri. Mr. Burri belongs to Flyertalk.com, a message board populated by travel enthusiasts. And, as reported by Susan Stellin in the New York Times, Cigarman figured out Mr. Kellner’s email address and shared a thing or two about Continental.

Rather than ignore these comments, Mr. Kellner emailed Cigarman back within minutes. That exchange led to “occasional dinners” and eventually to a bet between Cigarman and Mr. Kellner.

According to Cigarman, “Larry and I were having a disagreement about the power of a site like FlyerTalk … I was telling him that I think it’s very important that travel companies watch these sites, for the good and the bad, because rumors get blown out of proportion. He said there’s not more than 60 people on FlyerTalk.com who fly Continental on a regular basis. I told him he was crazy, so a wager ensued.”

The bet was that if more than 60 FlyerTalk members paid their own way to Houston, Mr. Kellner would buy them dinner, give them a special airport tour and answer their questions. Surprise-surprise: A total of 274 Continental loyalists showed up … and, according to Cigarman, the “give-and-take” was “like Oprah.” Take that, JetBlue.



An interesting turn of events indeed, especially when you consider that Continental generally keeps a certain distance from sites like FlyerTalk: “When we see something that’s factually incorrect, we’ll work with the moderator, but we don’t like to put our own posts on there,” says Mark Bergsrud, Continental’s marketing veep.

FlyerTalk’s founder, Randy Petersen, also editor of InsideFlyer (insideflyer.com) magazine says he’s surprised by all the airline involvement. “I was almost taken aback at how well Continental embraced that event,” he said. “The biggest guys in the company rubbing elbows with some mileage fanatics.”

Moderator’s Comment: Should companies monitor outside channels, chatrooms and blogs to learn how customers perceive them?

There are a lot more vehicles available for customers to speak out and with each other about your company. This is both a blessing and curse. A blessing
in that you can now obtain a lot of unvarnished feedback. A curse because you no longer control it or cover it in stain-blocking primer and paint.

Ignoring the feedback doesn’t help you or deliver better service to your customers. But responding in knee-jerk fashion isn’t the right approach either.

For a company to benefit from this torrent of free advice, the comments need to be filtered and authenticated. Issues that are real and persistent need
to be distinguished from those that are unfortunate but uncommon missteps.

Once a real issue is identified, corrective measures need to be taken. Afterward, appreciation should be shared with those who took the time to point out
the offending practice. You should also extend a sincere invitation to give you another try. The shock of being heard and responded to is sure to increase loyalty.

John Hennessy – Moderator

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11 Comments on "Wings of Loyalty"


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Carol Spieckerman
Guest
15 years 7 months ago

Taking chatrooms and blogs (and, I would add, podcasts) too seriously is not unlike looking up your upcoming surgery or condition on the internet. You are bound to find information confirming your worst near-death fears as well as over simplification of complex situations. I think Continental’s approach was quite balanced – they didn’t join in the fray but took it all in and invited the serious to a Continental-directed forum. This was a low-risk win for Continental.

Warren Thayer
Guest
15 years 7 months ago

John nailed it, with his comments. You do in fact need someone to authenticate what’s being said. I used to visit investor sites/bulletin boards but quit because the misinformation was so intense. But if you have resources to filter through it, and if it pays off, as it so obviously did in the instance cited, go for it!

Ron Margulis
Guest
15 years 7 months ago

As anyone who viewed the CNBC special on eBay that has run at least a few times during the past week, feedback is what makes that company tick. Without the customer feedback mechanism, there would be no trust in actually doing commerce on the site, said the company’s founder. Outside channels like FlyerTalk, as well as chat rooms and blogs, help companies and organizations understand what people think about their public image. True, there are many sites that take this too far [like the anti-Wal-Mart sites], but it still pays for companies to know what is being said or written about them.

Tom McGoldrick
Guest
Tom McGoldrick
15 years 7 months ago

Chat rooms and blogs can be an interesting source of information for companies and are worth monitoring. However, as my 10-year-old daughter likes to say, “The internet is the wild wild west.” Not everything is true. Companies can benefit by using these forums but must validate everything they learn from another source.

For example, years ago, I worked with a now defunct airline that was having many complaints about their food. (Remember when airlines served food?) We put a simple training program in place for the flight attendants to be more positive and upbeat about how they presented food. Their complaints about bad food went down, and the customer satisfaction scores with food went up. If they had taken the advice of the complaint line, now chat room and blog, and changed their menu, they would have spent dramatically more money for probably a worse outcome.

Yes, it was our fault they continued to serve bad food. My apologies. 🙂

Paul Vogelzang
Guest
Paul Vogelzang
15 years 7 months ago

It is clear to me from within my government perch that information empowers and reduces uncertainty. Whether it is health care information from the government, civic or political engagement, or citizen research, blogging and the openness created from it helps foster social capital, leading to good (or better) government.

This type of “content” is no different than going on a “sales call” talking directly to the customer, and communicating with them candidly, openly, and regularly, but blogging enlarges (obviously) the audience.

Government is no different in this regard. The audience is already big, but our citizenry deserve the same candor and approach that comes from customer visits, irrespective of whether that visit is face to face, or via the internet.

Bernice Hurst
Guest
15 years 7 months ago

Perception is everything. Even the comments that have to be taken with a huge pinch of salt are worth monitoring because you know that other people are reading them. Misinformation needs to be carefully corrected rather than ignored before any serious damage is done. It seems dumb to me not to keep an eye on what customers are saying. Finding a relatively simple and inexpensive, as well as transparently objective, means of dealing with criticisms will indeed attract loyalty.

Elly Valas
Guest
Elly Valas
15 years 7 months ago

I don’t understand the question. Of course we have to listen to our customers. It doesn’t matter if they send us a note, complete an in-store suggestion card, send e-mail or put up a billboard.

It’s the customer, stupid. We can learn more about their wants and needs from them than from anything else.

If they now choose blogs, so be it.

We know some customers lie. Most, though, have valid, valuable feedback to help us all improve our businesses.

James Tenser
Guest
15 years 7 months ago

Any company that ignores what is said about it online, is wearing blinders. Not all blog or BBS commentary is accurate, or even responsible, but all of it is accessible to anyone who searches it out on the WWW. Online posts may be initiated by competitors, by dissatisfied real customers, and by individuals who specialize in influencing others. Any large firm that deals with the public must allocate some effort to monitoring this traffic. That’s why we hire marketing assistants. Occasionally, the insights gained may beneficially influence strategy.

Now, responding to the online chatter is another matter. I’d be very selective about that, and keep the decision at a high level in the organization (VP or CMO level). The Continental Airlines example is a special instance that proves the power of engaging with responsible critics. But CEO dinners for 247 customers, however successful, cannot be routine events.

Stuart Silverman
Guest
Stuart Silverman
15 years 7 months ago
I just read Joe Trippi’s The Revolution Will Not Be Televised about the use of the Internet in Howard Dean’s campaign to tap into the electorate’s desire to have a voice in government. And it got me to start rereading The Cluetrain Manifesto which posits, among other things, that selling and marketing is about conversations between providers and consumers of goods and that the internet enables that conversation in today’s mass marketing culture. How can you not listen to the market’s feedback? Sure there are cranks and crooks and hackers who enjoy messing things up for the attention that it gets them. But for the majority, the act of providing feedback is a caring, concerned act. I don’t think people provide feedback if they don’t care how it is used. They care and companies should listen. The Continental story is a great story about the company’s discovery of a rabid, vocal and caring market of customers. My question is how do companies tap in to those enthusiastic customers on a regular basis to drive an… Read more »
Deepak Sharma
Guest
Deepak Sharma
15 years 7 months ago

The power of blogs cannot be ignored. In recent times, blogs have garnered a great deal of corporate attention just because of influential readers and writers. Unlike other media, blogs contain dynamic, real time information and companies must keep an eye on this dynamic source of information and feedback, and engage these blogs/bloggers for their own good.

One simple answer to the question posed by Stuart Silverman is that companies start publishing their own blogs and start building relationships and communities with customers around these blogs. The blogs can be about anything: day to day press releases, customer service, knowledgebase, marketing etc. In these blogs, provide an open channel of communications like comments, links to forums etc. Companies like General Motors (http://gmblogs.com/) have realized the importance of blogs and have built audiences for this form of communication (check # of comments each blog post is garnering).

Mark Lilien
Guest
15 years 7 months ago

Many companies are introverted. They primarily look inwardly and they don’t have consistent ways to understand how they look to outsiders, including customers and potential customers. The most introverted are the ones who need the customer interaction the most. Perhaps it is no accident that Wal-Mart, whose headquarters dominate a small isolated place (Bentonville), has major PR problems while Target, headquartered in a major city, does not. Is Wal-Mart primarily an inward-looking company? Is Target the opposite? GM needs the blogs and any other way to get a dose of (perceived) reality from its customers and potential customers. Once it was so big and so successful that they must have felt they didn’t have to listen to anyone. Massive, dominant success can breed the seeds of destruction.

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