Social media started with people. People sharing, people talking, people with eyes wide at the prospect of broadcasting one message to hundreds of people in an instant. Sites grew, individuals’ networks grew faster, and a new era of communication was ushered in.
Marketers, well versed in going where the people are, soon followed. Lured by the prospect of reaching these masses on a free platform with virtually no limits, resorts joined by the hundreds. By 2010, more resorts had social accounts than didn’t. Social media had become a marketing platform.
The ability for individuals to broadcast was unique, but even more so was the idea of brands and individuals broadcasting side by side. People didn’t take out TV spots to share their stories, nor did resorts gather giant email lists for reaching thousands of people at once, yet here they were—the faces and the logos—sharing the same messages on the same sites to the same people at the same time.
This was uncharted territory.
In hindsight, resorts should have seen the next phase of this progression coming, and many did. It wasn’t brands talking to people or people talking to people that caught marketers off guard; it was the ability of people to talk to brands. It was the idea that it had just become as easy to communicate with Vail’s headquarters in Broomfield as it was to chat with Vinny Henderson next door.
Social media wasn’t just for marketing anymore. It was the setting for a form of customer service never seen by our industry, or any industry.
Social Media Challenges
At the crux of this new frontier in customer service were two key hurdles. The first was that all of these interactions were happening on a largely public forum. Previously, brands had always been in the control. You’d call a specific phone number during specific hours where guests would singlehandedly take on a resort on the resort’s turf. If you didn’t like it? Tough luck. Ski areas had little reason to worry about the occasional disgruntled skier, and skiers had little recourse aside from making a ruckus at the ticket window or rental counter.
Now it was different.
A social media user with 500 followers could tweet at Jackson Hole’s social account in a way where each of those 500 followers could potentially see. Even more, if the followers wanted to jump into the conversation, they could. Before long, one upset parent could turn into hundreds or, in some cases, thousands.
The second hurdle resorts faced was found in the expectations of consumers. A Facebook user’s friends didn’t respond instantly to their messages nor vice versa, but in the context of customer service, the desire for an instant answer didn’t change when guests stopped calling and started tweeting.
“Consumers expect a response from companies on social media within 60 minutes,” says social media advisor, Adam Buchanan, and the data agree. Research performed by social management platform Lithium suggests more than half of social media users expect a response within that hour time frame. For complaints, that number jumps to 72 percent.
Steamboat’s digital communications manager, Nicole Miller, points out that while the research may say one thing, on the front lines, social media users “expect replies to be instantaneous.”
This point is exacerbated by the limited resources of many ski resort operations. “One of the challenges of making your social media channels a resource for customer service is that many of us are teams of one,” says Miller. “Guests don’t stop having questions at 5 p.m. on Friday.”
Wachusett’s social media manager, Andrew Santoro, agrees. “We have a fairly small team, so that’s definitely a challenge when it comes to managing responses along with other responsibilities,” he says.
It’s a losing battle for many resorts. While response times to comments have come down considerably, the average response time by resorts to posts on their wall sits at nearly 39 hours across the industry.
Monitoring the Channels
Faced with much higher expectations, where does a resort start? According to Adam Buchanan, it’s simple. “You always need at least one person listening on social media, with a plan on how to respond to customers.” But unlike a call center, where that one agent simply answers the phone when it rings, the social media listeners have to be watching for comments and complaints that can come from dozens of directions, and the response plan needs to be relevant to the various media.
On Facebook, for instance, a skier could write on a resort’s wall, comment on content the resort shared, piggyback on another skier’s post, tag the resort in a post on their own page, or message the resort directly. On Twitter and Instagram, where nearly all of the conversation is public, it gets even trickier.
With so many methods of engaging a ski area it’s easy to think that monitoring these conversations becomes problematic. But the solution is extremely simple for most resorts: use mobile alerts and settings right in each platform’s native app. “We have a great analytics tool in Simply Measured, but we do all our posting, scheduling and listening natively,” says Miller.
Dan Bergeron, who used to run social media for Vail Resorts and is now the social media manager for Denver-based education startup Galvanize, feels the same. “Being a social media manager in Colorado, I tend to be in the mountains or outdoors a lot on nights and weekends. I still find one of the most effective ways to monitor and respond to customers on social media is native social apps for the iPhone.”
Santoro follows a similar approach. Once alerts are set up, he draws upon those in relevant roles across Wachusett for help. “I respond to most questions, but everyone needs a day off, so our web manager and special events manager may also chime in when they see urgent questions,” he says. “Our employees are also great about commenting from their personal accounts, particularly the snowmakers and terrain park crew. Those guys are the front lines, they’re the first ones to know what’s happening on the mountain.”
Regardless of who responds, the dynamic for social media requests differs slightly from traditional customer service and, according to Steamboat’s Miller, resorts need to be ready for it. “When you call a company, you’re routed to the appropriate department to address your concerns,” she notes. “When you reach out through social media, you’re reaching a person who doesn’t have all the answers and needs some time to track them down. It’s a bit like tweeting @Safeway and asking whether your local store has lobster on sale.”
Questions about conditions or ticket prices are one thing, but what about complaints? While the internet mob can certainly turn on unsuspecting brands, resorts also have an option they usually didn’t have on the phone or in person. They have a choice about whether to respond at all.
“I’m always eager to help solve a guest’s problem, but in terms of negative feedback, I try to gauge whether customers are looking for a solution or whether they just want to complain,” says Miller. “If it’s the latter, I just let them do that.”
Bergeron sees things similarly. “Customers tend to post or comment about a problem they have, but often just get caught up in the moment, venting frustrations without fully explaining the issue. Not every person who complains on social media will get a free steak delivered to them at the airport. Most customers just want to be heard.”
Though not every case needs to be resolved with a freebie, employees involved in such cases need the ability to dole out the goods, and quickly. “When responding to customer service complaints, ask what you can do,” suggests Buchanan. “Empower your social team to spend $50 to $200 at their discretion to make things right.”
Shannon Johnson, who ran social media at Keystone before joining Alaska Airlines’ social team, encourages a slightly different approach. “There are always some conversations where you might not engage with the customer. Maybe they are talking about your brand but not asking a question. When a customer is directly tweeting to your brand by tagging your account or posting on your page, they are expecting a response and you should deliver a response.”
Just the Beginning
However a resort chooses to handle these messages, they aren’t going away anytime soon.
“Social media is such a logical place for people to go for customer service,” says Miller. “It’s accessible (often in your pocket), it’s casual (no form to fill out), and it’s fast (at least it should be). The challenge is getting brands to catch up with customers’ expectations of instant responses by staffing their companies accordingly.”
Despite the challenges, it’s not all uphill. “It’s a two-way communication,” notes Johnson. “It’s the perfect opportunity to gain insights into your audience, go above and beyond for them, and create a memorable customer service experience.”
Resorts may never get their response times down to five minutes, but social media inquiries can’t be ignored. After all, that VIP for whom you bend over backward may have a Twitter account. If she starts tweeting instead of dialing, you have to be ready.