Frontline staff can turn the threat of publicity to their advantage, says Giles Hawke, chief executive of Cosmos and chairman of Atas

It was interesting to read (and see) video via social media being used again recently for a customer to complain about how they were treated, this time in a travel agency. The Tui customer filmed staff escorting him from a branch in Birmingham after making a complaint. The footage ended up on the Birmingham Mail website and he was offered a full refund.

Last year, a man was violently dragged from a United Airlines flight by aviation security officials at Chicago’s O’Hare International airport after refusing to get off the aircraft due to overbooking. The incident was captured on video by fellow passengers and sparked international outrage.

Reputation threat

All of us in any capacity in the service industry need to recognise that our customers, and indeed anyone, can instantly share with the whole world anything we do wrong. It’s no longer a complaint letter and the often empty threat of writing to a newspaper when a customer is disgruntled. Now, we all have in our hands the technology to instantly broadcast any real or perceived transgression of what we expect and to have it out there for all to see forever more.

On one level, it is possible for people to disingenuously create situations that will lead to something film-worthy for malicious purposes, or to blow up some very minor misdemeanour. As reported in Travel Weekly last week, it also calls into question the legality of filming in public places, consent and data protection. But as lawyer Matt Gatenby has said, the worst thing to do is “react inappropriately”.

Clearly things can and do go wrong in travel – it’s the nature of the beast – but how we react and behave when this happens dictates whether we have created a social media phenomenon, such as a person being dragged from their plane seat, or a lesson in empathy and understanding that will benefit our brands and our industry.

‘Always on show’

But putting aside the legality, and indeed the antagonistic aspect, of doing something like this, I think there is a real benefit to this sort of visibility for companies. We need to always act like we are on show and visible to the world, and our frontline people should always have this approach when on duty. Some of the real masters of customer magic hold signs as people go “on stage” in their theme parks, reminding them that they are now in a live show. Perhaps this is something we and all our frontline staff can all learn from.

I spent a number of years at the sharp end as a rep and an airport manager for a pretty big ski operator. Most of the time my approach, had I been secretly filmed, could have been an advert for the company, but there were times when frustration with unreasonable customer behaviour might have been a social media sensation had such a thing existed way back then.

Technology and social media have brought huge benefits and transformed how we communicate and promote our businesses. They allow us to share ideas, debate and record moments in history big and small. But they can be equally negative if we aren’t prepared for them to be used against us.