Regular readers of this blog will know my view that Twitter has been hyped way beyond its true value and significance, and that simple old email is much more valuable than most people writing on the travel industry care to admit. So today I’m changing tune a little, and actually asking this question: if it is fair for me to criticise Twitter as the answer for improving customer service, then should email be lumped into the same bucket. Should airline websites publish email addresses as a way for customers to contact the airline?

I’ve been thinking about this question for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I was away on business last week to meet with two different airlines; one of them had a team of people replying to passenger email queries and together we were looking at which tasks could be automated. SSR confirmations and schedule change notifications are obvious, but that is all outbound – the inbound email is a totally different story, and much more complex to optimize. The second reason I’ve been thinking about this topic is due to having recently read an article in Information Week titled How Text Analytics Drive Customer Insight and which starts off:

There’s nothing like an ice storm and angry customers to focus the mind. JetBlue Airways went through a trial by ice in February 2007, when a storm grounded flights at New York’s Kennedy Airport and left its passengers stranded on the runway for hours. During the crisis and its aftermath, the volume of e-mail to the company soared from 400 a day to 15,000. Personnel couldn’t possibly read and report on all the messages in a timely way–but the company needed to respond. Not long before the storm, JetBlue had begun to explore text analytics, intrigued by new technology that promised real linguistic analysis that could mine for concepts, not just do the simplistic “counting words” approach. In the heat of the crisis, one text analytics vendor, Attensity, analyzed all the e-mail messages JetBlue had received and produced a report in two days. The report proved critical to the development of JetBlue’s customer bill of rights, says Bryan Jeppsen, a JetBlue senior analyst.

No matter how good the software is to “read” incoming email, I know from personal experience how frustrating it is to get an automated reply; I’d rather never have been given the option of wasting my time writing a well thought out email if I knew that an actual person was unlikely to read it. And when it comes to making a purchase via constant back and forth using email, I would like to see a study showing what percentage convert, and what is the cost of customer acquisition versus other forms such as telephone or website. As a high tier frequent flier, an email address to the airline that I knew would be promptly answered whenever I had a problem or question might be an interesting proposition, and maybe only second in importance/value to lounge access, but I’m not aware of airlines offering this type of concierge service selectively to their more valuable customers. But back to the topic of offering email as a means of communication with (ie. back and forth, not just communication to) the general public, this is something that I would be very surprised to see a positive ROI on. As always, I’ll happily stand corrected if someone wants to share some airline industry data with me showing the contrary.