CNN — "Fly by the tips of your fingers."
That was the slogan on cocktail napkins that doubled as toilet paper on a recent United Airlines international flight, according to a post on FlyerTalk, a popular online message forum.
"Apparently, they ran out in one (lavatory) half-way home and couldn't bother to transfer a roll from another," wrote the original poster, who included a photo of the napkins found inside a makeshift container.
The thread has generated at least 10 pages of comments poking fun at United's toilet paper supply and other business practices.
"You guys are doing it wrong," wrote one person, tongue in cheek. "I purchased a yearly TP subscription on united.com. I do not have this problem."
Wrote another: "a great new benefit to card members at boarding."
Complaining via Twitter
In the days before online travel forms and social media, airlines had more control over the process by which customers complained and commented on their services. It usually involved a typed letter sent to corporate headquarters with some distant hope that the company might respond.
Now customers can tweet out their complaints -- along with pictures and video -- right from their airline gate, flight or hotel room, and they expect companies to respond within minutes.
It's a brave new world in the travel industry, where customers can sometimes control the conversation about the travel providers they use. And it's up to the often anonymous members of an online forum or the wider community of Twitter and other social media to decide if the complaint is legitimate.
An airline's social media team
Airlines, cruise lines and hotels are among the many travel companies hiring social media teams to establish a presence online and quickly respond to online complaints and comments.
JetBlue Airways has a team of about 30 employees to respond quickly to customers who follow JetBlue on Twitter, "like" the airline on Facebook and simply mention the airline on any social media outlets.
"If someone tweets that they're at an (airport) gate in Chicago and not getting a lot of information about their flight, we will let them know the status of the flight," said Morgan Johnston, JetBlue's corporate communications manager and social media strategist. "If one person is tweeting, there's probably another 149 people who have the same concerns."
The social media teams don't have much time to sort out the facts from the fiction, but they do what they can.
"If there's a direct question, we try to respond within 15 minutes, and more often, it's under five minutes," Morgan said. "This is real-time media. If I'm a customer, I can get out four tweets in five minutes."
Airlines that are honest and transparent in their daily operations will generate a reservoir of goodwill and be forgiven more quickly when they make mistakes, said Johnston. That is, of course, if their employees move to fix those mistakes quickly.
The danger of not participating? "If you're not part of the conversation, you don't have any ability to change the direction of it," Johnston said.
Don't want the boss to be surprised
Many companies also dedicate social media staffers to monitor forum conversations.
At least 185 companies have representatives participating in various conversations on FlyerTalk, where the United Airlines toilet paper photo was posted.
"They all read the site because they don't want their bosses to see it on FlyerTalk (first)," said Brent Conver, FlyerTalk's general manager.
"They're also managing customer service," he said. "If I had a bad flight and it shows up on FlyerTalk, they can get a handle on it. They don't want to look or be unresponsive."
It's important, Conver said, that the travel companies have employees that can engage in the conversation.
"I see a lot of reps think it's an ad campaign, who post and don't come back," he said. "If you don't take a conversational tone, people don't relate to you. You have to be active, watching and paying attention and making a concerted approach to solve a problem."
The power of consumers online
The travel industry is becoming more aware of the power of their customers' online communication.
The Internet gives a platform "for anyone who snaps a photo of a moment in time," said Josiah Mackenzie, director of business development at ReviewPro, which helps hotels manage their online presence. "Sometimes it's a tweet that has no basis in reality. But when it goes viral, the potential audience is enormous."
People will often complain first on Twitter, even while they're still staying at a hotel, Mackenzie said. That's an opportunity for the hotel to address their complaints before it's too late.
"You can catch an item before days go by and they check out and leave a review on TripAdvisor that stays forever," he said.
And it's not limited to airlines and hotels.
Cruise lines know that customers have a hard time understanding the different layouts, room sizes and locations, amenities, on-shore excursions and fees of any cruise line or particular ship they haven't sailed before. That's why passengers turn to forums such as Cruise Critic to plan their trips and vent when things go wrong.
"Almost every cruise line I know has someone dedicated to reading forums and responding to them," said Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor-in-chief of CruiseCritic. "I can't think of anything more important than communicating to your customers."
Even cruise line executives, such as Oceania Cruises chief executive Frank Del Rio, have been known to respond to questions posted by Cruise Critic members.
"If people don't feel valued, they're going to let others know about it," Spencer Brown said. "The danger of not responding is pushing forward the perception that you're not interested in the perspective of your customer."
Companies monitoring the forums can see whether ships are operating well or whether there are systematic problems aboard particular ships that need to be fixed, she said.
Crucial when things go wrong
When things go wrong -- as it did in May with a fire aboard Royal Caribbean's Grandeur of the Seas cruise ship -- it's crucial for companies to be upfront on social media. Brown credits Royal Caribbean for tweeting out news of the fire and sending pictures of its CEO examining the fire damage after the ship docked in the Bahamas.
The company also tweeted details about how they transferred people home, what compensation those customers would receive and what future cruises would be canceled.
"It was gutsy, and it was brilliant," Spencer Brown said.
It's actually nothing new
While the medium is relatively new, most customers are just demanding online what they've always demanded: good customer service. They want explanations when companies screw up or there are delays, and they want solid solutions to address any mistakes that are made.
"The emergence of digital media has put a special emphasis on customer service," said Mackenzie. "It's all about service, keeping our guests delighted. It's not a complex subject. It's just the way people communicate is different."
Toilet paper issues aside, United Airlines has a social media staff of 20 employees working from the airline's Chicago office, United spokesman Charles Hobart said.
That includes a presence at FlyerTalk, engaging with forum members and asking them for opinions on new products and existing products. "We know that it's important to be involved with FlyerTalk," Hobart said.
Leaving the potty humor to others, United also apologized for the toilet paper shortfall in a company statement.
"We apologize to our customers on this flight for the inconvenience and would like the opportunity to welcome them back."
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