Social media: buyers beware?

The use of social media by business travellers is growing. How should travel buyers respond to this phenomenon, and does it have a place in the policy, asks Rob Gill?

Follow any major transport provider’s Twitter account and you are almost certain to see a regular stream of complaints from passengers on a range of topics – delays, seating and check-in problems, queues at the airport or station, bad wifi and even flights running out of alcohol hours before they land.

Social media has helped to equip customers with an immediate and very public forum for voicing their dissatisfaction when their journeys are not as seamless as they would like (or as advertised by the service provider).

To be fair, most major airlines and rail companies are usually quick to respond to an unflattering tweet or post – normally along the lines of: “We’re sorry about this, give us some details and we will check it out.” It’s probably a fair assumption that a good proportion of these passengers are travelling on business (even if their social media accounts stress that their views are personal).

But what impact do social media posts have on the way organisations manage their travel programmes and relationships with preferred suppliers who may be on the receiving end of negative feedback?

Feedback loop

This issue can be even more heightened in high-profile sectors, such as entertainment and broadcasting, where the traveller in question can be a celebrity with social media followers measured in the millions – meaning that a negative tweet or post is unlikely to go unnoticed by the airline or travel service supplier.

George Grund, global travel director at broadcaster ITV, says: “Managing social media is not so much about managing our staff but more how to manage our travel suppliers when talent tweet a complaint that negatively affects their company. This can be a real complaint or sometimes an unfounded comment, but when talent have millions of followers this can easily negatively affect our suppliers.”

In these circumstances, Grund adds: “This is all part of us working with our suppliers and making them understand how to work with the entertainment industry, what we need from them and what they can do to better manage talent, cast and our guests. On the flipside, one of our celebrities recently posted a positive tweet about an airline I was in the middle of negotiating a deal with, and that definitely helped me.”

But in less conspicuous sectors, what should buyers do when their travellers may have voiced their displeasure with a preferred supplier on social media instead of talking directly to the travel department?

Louise Kilgannon, a consultant with Festive Road who formerly ran travel programmes for major companies, including Procter & Gamble, Astra Zeneca and Microsoft, says complaints on social media can present an opportunity for a buyer to create a closer working relationship with key travellers. “An industry friend managing a large programme recently shared that one of her travellers wrote an open letter of complaint to a preferred airline in a public forum,” says Kilgannon.

“While she would have liked him to go directly to her with this feedback, it created an excellent opportunity for engagement. “Travel managers shouldn’t be afraid of negative feedback,” she adds.

“In fact, social media provides an opportunity to respond with the facts quickly and in a public forum. Employees will soon see that there is a team of people managing travel and should start to engage with you more.”

 But finding out that one of your travellers has taken a public swipe at a supplier is not always easy – particularly for organisations with hundreds or even thousands of travellers constantly moving around the world. So what sort of policies and social media strategies should travel buyers use to help improve the effectiveness of their travel programmes and policies?

Many organisations may want to avoid the high-profile public forums, such as Twitter, Facebook or Instagram – particularly as they are largely regarded as being “personal” platforms. There are more corporate-friendly social media platforms, such as Yammer, which can only be used by those working within a particular organisation.

Another option is Slack, which allows a company to consolidate communication platforms and apps in one place, so they can be used by employees for instant messaging, voice calls, as well as screen and file-sharing. On the other side of the coin, how do travel suppliers use social media to promote their services to clients and their travellers individually, as well as responding to any negative feedback coming through social media channels?

Peter Browne, corporate travel marketing manager for homeworking agency Travel Counsellors, says: “Social media can be a fantastic tool for business travel. For the travel booker it offers an easy way to research suppliers and ask for advice; for the TMC it offers a direct communication channel to connect it to existing and potential clients. “Social media can also act as an early warning system when things go wrong. Often Twitter can be way ahead of official channels when it comes to issues affecting travel.

“We always advise travellers to contact their Travel Counsellor direct if they have a specific issue with a supplier, but we do monitor social media,” Browne adds. “If we were to see a spike of complaints from our clients about a particular supplier, we would address them to facilitate a speedy resolution.”

But companies specialising in business travel need to think carefully about how they use social media to promote their brand and also communicate with travellers.

Work a little harder

John McCallion, chief executive of ground transport platform Groundscope, says: “B2B companies like ours have not used social media to promote their brands. But because business travellers are also consumers and are used to being contacted via social media, we are starting to use it.

“We are beginning to see more social media promotions on business sites, like Linkedin, and we will use social media, but only if the information and content is relevant to the end customer. Social media is a good way of showing customers the benefits of your service but it can also be annoying and intrusive, particularly to busy business travellers.”

Those working in business travel generally have to “work a little harder” to benefit from social media, says Bruce Martin, managing director of social media consultancy Ginger Juice, which predominantly works with TMCs in the corporate sector.

“Employees use a range of social media – most people in business travel have a Facebook account, many use Instagram and Twitter, too,” he says. “However, we recognise that it’s difficult for any company to be effective on all channels and feel uncomfortable reaching people on Facebook or Instagram, which are considered.

“Social media is one communication tool among many,” says Festive Road’s Kilgannon. “You can’t reach everybody with this tool but if your employees are talking about travel on social media, you need to be part of the conversation. Social media is less corporate in tone – messages should be more concise with links to more information, where appropriate.”

Kilgannon urges buyers who use social media to make sure these channels are “constantly monitored” to stay in control of the message. She adds: “If a complaint goes unnoticed, others fill in the gaps and a cycle of misinformation begins.”

Using social media may seem like another task on the buyers’ “to do” list, but it’s increasingly hard to ignore. Managed properly it can open up new ways to communicate with travellers and help to improve satisfaction levels. After all, most travellers just want to know somebody is listening.

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