Christopher Elliott | Special to USA TODAY
John Paul Engel checked into the “worst hotel ever” in Miami recently. He checked out the next morning and demanded a refund of his remaining days. When a manager refused to return his money, he used an expert social media strategy to fix the problem – but not the way you think.
For years, travelers have turned to Facebook, Twitter and other sites to extract quick refunds and apologies from travel companies. But their tactics have become more sophisticated lately.
Engel, a consultant from North Sioux City, South Dakota, says his hotel was beyond terrible.
“It had a broken front door, a drug smell in the hallway, and a lot of shady characters running around,” he recalls. “It was the worst hotel I’ve ever stayed in.”
When he left, the hotel refused to refund the rest of his unused nights – meaning he’d pay $600 for nothing. But instead of taking his case to Twitter or Facebook or leaving a scathing TripAdvisor review, he logged onto LinkedIn.
“I reached out to the vice president of customer care for the travel site I’d booked the hotel through,” he recalls. “He was an alumnus of my graduate school. I gave him the hotel’s address and asked him to send an inspector.”
A few days later, Engel received a full refund.
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How the pandemic sharpened travelers’ social media skills
The pandemic has changed how travelers use social media, experts say. They’ve developed a new set of skills – and travel companies say they have become more responsive to social media channels.
Lightman has noticed travelers using more video, audio and multimedia platforms to make their cases. For example, earlier this year, an Aer Lingus passenger used Twitter – and a clever PowerPoint presentation – to help the airline find his luggage.
Although statistics are difficult to come by, it’s clear that more travelers are turning to social media when things go wrong. The wave of Memorial Day cancellations showed how overwhelming social media pressure is on airlines. In one widely shared tweet, a frustrated Delta Air Lines representative begged a passenger for extra time to help solve a flight problem. Lots of travelers retweeted the digital outburst, of course.
Sharon Geltner, a social media expert who specializes in travel, says travelers are using social media strategies like Engel’s more often, too. Her advice: Pay for a premium LinkedIn account, which allows you to send personal messages directly to an executive.
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“Take time to research the right executive at your airline, cruise line, hotel or tour operator,” she advises. “You need a target.”
This strategy works. Because LinkedIn is a smaller professional network, executives often take the time to read their messages – and respond. I also publish the names, numbers and email addresses of key executives on my consumer advocacy site.
Other new social media strategies for fixing a travel problem
The most effective new social media strategies are a departure from the early 2000s tactics. They de-emphasize social shaming and focus instead on problem-solving. Here’s what some of the experts say:
Don’t follow the crowd when you use social media. “Resist the urge – at least initially – to call out the company publicly,” advises Matt Schulz, a senior director at LendingTree. “It may get their attention and get them to respond to you. But it doesn’t mean that you’ll be more likely to get what you want.” Instead, give the regular customer service channels — phone, chat, or even in person — a chance before taking your dispute public.
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Be platform agnostic. Don’t fixate on a single social media platform or site. Chip Bell, a customer service expert, says you should focus instead on reaching the right person at the travel company. “When I had an issue with a Marriott while en route to their property, I emailed the general manager directly and got the problem resolved super-fast,” he says. How did he find the name of the general manager? It was on LinkedIn.
Tell the truth. Companies are far less likely to shrug off a false review online, now that social media has become so popular. This has become much more of an issue since the Johnny Depp defamation trial. “Legal action could be taken against the individual responsible, starting with a cease and desist letter, followed by a defamation case if needed,” warns David Clark, an attorney specializing in personal injury cases. The best defense is the truth, so never lie or exaggerate when you call out a company on social media.
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How travel companies are trying to help
Travel companies agree that these expert media strategies will lead to a faster resolution. John Young, a manager who advises on social media at Southwest Airlines, says calling out the company at the first sign of trouble may be the wrong move. His airline has added new self-service options through its website and app in the last two years. That allows many customers to fix their problem without getting an agent involved.
But if the site can’t help, a private message sent through Facebook or Twitter may be a better way to start the resolution process. Posting on your own Facebook page or leaving a comment on Southwest’s page won’t help. “People should remember that if they post on their own Facebook page with a complaint, we can’t see that,” he says. (Try a private message instead.)
The least effective social media strategy? Going negative.
“They don’t need to threaten, shame, or attack our people,” says Young. “Our people want to help our customers.”
That may be the hardest social media advice to take as America returns to travel. It’s tempting to send an angry and public message to a company when things go wrong. Or to amp up the drama. But when it comes to social media, the quiet and polite approach is still the most effective.
How to more effectively use social media to fix your travel problem
Be direct. Before going to a public forum, try to send a direct message to the company via Facebook or Twitter. Companies know that your next step will be social media, so they are more likely to take your request seriously. “A private conversation allows room for rebuilding the customer’s trust,” says Haley Walker, an integrated marketing manager at Crowe PR, a public relations and digital marketing agency.
Mind your manners and get to the point. “Be friendly and factual,” advises Lindsey Steck, a spokeswoman for Visit Pensacola, an organization that markets Pensacola, Florida. Interestingly, that’s what her organization’s social media team does, too. You’ll get a more favorable response by being nice and avoiding ALL UPPERCASE messages (that’s yelling). “We’re all people, after all,” she says.
Be patient. It can take hours to receive a meaningful reply from a company via social media during peak travel times. That’s because everyone with a problem is flooding the company’s Facebook page with urgent requests. Sending repeated follow-up questions won’t necessarily get a faster resolution. Experts say you have to give them time to process your request. Depending on your problem, it could take several hours – or days.