Ride me high

This story in the New York Times describes how companies are looking at what customers have to say online, and are indeed turning that into an opportunity to understand and connect. No mention this article of companies trying to suppress or remove negative comments made by their customers.

Early in April, Continental Airlines played host at a gathering in Houston for members of FlyerTalk.com, a travel Web site best known for its message boards where travelers discuss, dissect and often complain about pretty much anything related to travel, but mostly airlines and their frequent-flier programs.

Not that it was all warm and fuzzy, Mr. Burri acknowledged. The dinner guests “didn’t necessarily like all the answers they got” to questions about the removal of first-class seats from some aircraft, the challenge of qualifying for elite status and the difficulty of redeeming frequent-flier miles for free tickets and upgrades.

In fact, blogs may be grabbing all the media headlines, but online communities like FlyerTalk are wielding a different kind of influence in the corporate world, providing instant feedback from those critics who marketers have called influencers. Just by logging on, companies can study, learn from and even respond to the cacophony of opinions about what they are doing wrong and what they are doing right without spending a dime on focus groups or market research.

Some travel companies have even assigned employees to act as authorized representatives in monitoring FlyerTalk’s message boards and answering questions, reporting back about hot topics and occasionally putting out fires – ideally without sounding like a corporate mouthpiece or disrupting the Web site’s natural give and take

Although Continental does not have anyone participating in the FlyerTalk fray in an official capacity, “Lots of us will go to FlyerTalk and pull up our forum and see what our customers are talking about,” said Mark Bergsrud, Continental’s vice president for marketing programs, who attended the Houston event.

“When we see something that’s factually incorrect,” Mr. Bergsrud said, “we’ll work with the moderator, but we don’t like to put our own posts on there. We’d have to be real careful about how we word everything.”

That said, Continental has responded to suggestions that have bubbled up through the FlyerTalk forums, Mr. Bergsrud added, like creating a customer service desk exclusively for its elite fliers, changing the format of frequent-flier statements and tweaking some of the tools on continental.com.

One company that has assigned an official representative to FlyerTalk is Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide, owner of the St. Regis, Westin, Sheraton, W and other chains. William Sanders, better known to FlyerTalk regulars as “Starwood Lurker,” says he spends six or eight hours on Mondays getting caught up on all the posts and messages that have come in over the weekend, but four hours a day is closer to normal.

Figuring out how, and how much, to participate has been a learning process, Mr. Sanders said. “I used to respond to everything I knew an answer to, and then I figured out they’ll often answer it for you.” He said he now tried to observe the delicate balance between being helpful and disrupting the exchange of ideas the site was meant to foster.


About Steve