How good customer service can save the airline industry

As I begin the last week of my six-year career at PRWeek, it's only natural to think about all of the things that I've learned while here.

As I begin the last week of my six-year career at PRWeek, it's only natural to think about all of the things that I've learned while here. I've already reflected on how the industry has changed from when I was hired as a reporter to cover the media and services beat. Yet there are some things that have remained the same, but just affected by the changing media landscape, a more informed and empowered consumer, and economic highs and lows. One of my passionate topics while here , aside from Mad Men, has been customer service and its intersection with PR. Over my time here, I've seen how stellar customer service can truly build a brand (think Jet Blue), and in turn how a customer service misstep plus the power of social media can force a company to completely  rethink its PR strategy (hello, Comcast!).

The power that customer service has on a brand's reputation has become more clear to me during the past five weeks, as I've been traveling extensively  for various PRWeek events across the country. On Friday, when I returned from Chicago, my last trip until a vacation in December, I realized how many brands I'd come into contact with during my travels.  Over the past five weeks, I have used four different airlines, two commuter railroads, five different hotel chains, and two rental car companies. Now, I could write a novel on my experiences, but I'll limit it here to the airlines.

As we all know, the airline industry has seriously struggled over the past few years, given rising fuel costs, the economy, and baggage fees that do not sit well with customers. I've already blogged about my newfound love for Virgin America, and it does remain my favorite out of the four, which include United, American Airlines, and Delta, although I have to say I had completely positive experiences on all of them. All seem to realize the importance of customer service, from the ticket counter to the gate to the flight attendants. This was especially evident on my most recent trip to Chicago and back using United. Now, as we know United is in the midst of a merger with Continental, reshuffling its staff and readying to relaunch a brand. Certainly we've read about this in the news, but on 6am on Thursday morning, I was surprised to see it addressed on the flight. Before the instructional video that shares what to do in event of a water landing, and other uplifting things, there was a two-minute video from new United CEO Jeff Smisek explaining how the merger will affect customers where it matters the most: loyalty programs, ticket prices and other fees, and other real things that customers care about (I watched the video and then tuned out the subsequent instructional video, so someone please fill me in on what to do in event of a water landing....). I'm not naive enough to think that a video from an airline CEO can change consumer perception, but six years of experience covering the PR and marketing industries has taught me that it's a good start.

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