True Blue Customer Devotion: JetBlue’s Marty St. George on Marketing Smarts [Podcast]

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Marty St. George is executive vice-president, commercial and planning, at JetBlue Airways. Previously, he served as managing director of marketing planning at United Airlines.

I invited Marty to Marketing Smarts to talk about JetBlue’s success using social media for marketing and customer service. The airline’s main Twitter account (@JetBlue) has nearly two million followers, and its Twitter feed for last-minute deals (@JetBlueCheeps) has 450,000.

The impact of JetBlue’s social success goes well beyond follower counts, however; the airline has achieved a customer complaint rate of less than one (0.79) out of every 1,000 passengers!

That low rate frees up customer service personnel to surpass the expectations of satisfied customers by using tactics ranging from a simple acknowledgement on Twitter to a “surprise and delight” approach involving cupcakes at the gate (or even driving a delayed passenger to another airport).

From delighting passengers to serving those who are not quite as delighted, JetBlue has outshone competitors (even those with a bigger media budget) and created lasting connections with fans of the brand through social media engagement and customer service.

In this interview, Marty explains how the members of JetBlue’s team of more than 16,000 are chosen and trained to speak in one consistent voice that reflects the company’s mission and values.

Here are just a few highlights from our conversation:

Before you can be successful in social (or business), you have to understand your brand’s mission and focus (10:21): “At JetBlue, we start out with a very clear position as far as what the brand stands for…. We didn’t get successful on having the highest share of voices. We really focused on making sure that we’re consistent in portraying that brand personality everywhere and every way. The company was founded 15 years ago with the core focus and core mission around humanity. At the time, we said our goal was to bring humanity back to air travel. I think it’s because we recognize that air travel is fundamentally a service business. People don’t buy an airplane ticket to buy an airplane ticket. They buy a ticket to get somewhere. In this industry, so many of  the competitors have commodified themselves down to…so you really can’t tell the difference. If I blindfolded somebody and put them on Airline A, Airline B, or Airline C, a lot of times they wouldn’t really know which one they’re on. That’s not how it works at JetBlue.”

Success starts with hiring the right people (11:56): “We’re extremely lucky that the toughest part about managing [a large team] happens before somebody shows up: It’s getting through the interview process. We hire…1,200 people a year across the company…. We get hundreds and thousands of people who apply to work here. The screening process is a two-part process. The first part of the process is…can you do the job? Can you lift a bag? Can you fly an airplane? Can you do financial analysis…. The second piece of it is, are you someone that can understand the values and mission of the company and can fulfill it? Part of the process is around things like your own value system, how you’ve used your values, things like that…. The fact that it really is beaten into you before you walk in the door, and throughout your career, I think that’s how we make sure it doesn’t go away.

“If there’s one thing about the airline business, like marketing in general, it’s very incestuous…. There are definitely people here who’ve worked at multiple airlines—including myself—so you know people you think would be really good. I think we’ve all had these examples of people we’ve worked with in the past who we’ve brought in to interview, and the response is ‘great woman, great guy, really really smart, but we can’t hire them because they don’t fit the values.’ I think once you start caving on that, it’s really, really tough to hold that consistency. The thing I think that really makes it sustainable after 15 years is that the company’s values aren’t just something that’s on the wall. They’re words you hear in your day-to-day working life. A week will not go by where you will not hear, even at my level, three or four times, somebody will be in talking about a business decision in light of the company values.”

To outshine your competition in customer service, enlist the help of every employee, from the C-Suite to the front lines (17:08): “[At JetBlue, the word ‘crew member’] is what we use for ’employee.’ Crew members are not just people who work at the airport and touch airplanes. Everyone’s a crew member. I’m a crew member, the CEO’s a crew member. We’re all crew members, and we’re all sort of the same. The expectation is, it’s a service business and we’re here to serve. So when a plane lands, while the in-flight crew members are cleaning the airplane, we’re cleaning the airplane. We’re in the back getting the gloves, getting the bags, cleaning out seat-back pockets. We’re all pitching in. It’s not a place of hierarchy.”

Embrace mistakes (19:25): “The beauty of [working at JetBlue] is, this is a place where people are not discouraged from making mistakes…. The two founders of the company were very entrepreneurial. They very much were in the mode of ‘if we did everything like every other airline did it, then we’d be like every other airline, which is exactly what we don’t want to be.’ People are encouraged to take risks in their jobs, but if you take a risk and it doesn’t work, it needs to be a learning experience. If you take the same risk three times, it’s probably not a learning experience. Maybe you’re not learning. And there’s certainly areas where we don’t want people taking risks. Obviously, in the operational areas we want to make sure people are very, very precise and follow procedures. But if you go on social media, you can find countless examples of people on JetBlue who are going above and beyond the call of duty, not because they had to check with their boss, not because there’s a rulebook that says you should do this, but because they understand the mission and values.”

Social media should be interwoven throughout your organization (21:06): “The people who do our social media outreach are the same people who answer the phone and take reservations from our call center, our customer support center out in Salt Lake City. They have the opportunity to interview to be on the social team…. First, we want to make sure that we have our best people on it, and, second, we want to make sure that they can talk in the brand voice. Some companies that do social themselves will sign their Facebook posts or tweets with initials or something like that. We don’t do that, because everyone speaks in the same voice…. As a customer, we want to be very consistent as far as how we communicate. There’s only one JetBlue and there’s only one JetBlue voice.”

To learn more, visit JetBlue.com or follow Marty St. George on Twitter: @martysg.

Marty and I talked about much more, including how to ensure a consistent brand voice when a large remote team handles your social media and how to measure the success of your social media and social customer service efforts, so be sure to listen to the entire show, which you can do above, or download the mp3 and listen at your convenience. Of course, you can also subscribe to the Marketing Smarts podcast in iTunes or via RSS and never miss an episode!

This episode brought to you by the MarketingProfs Professional Development Program.

Special thanks to production sponsor Candidio, an efficient, affordable video production platform allowing marketers and communicators to collaborate and curate video content, with help from a team of professional, on-demand video editors for the finishing touches. Check them out!

Show opener music credit: Noam Weinstein.

This marketing podcast was created and published by MarketingProfs.

Marty St. George, executive vice-president of commercial and planning at JetBlue Airways. Follow Marty on Twitter.

Kerry O’Shea Gorgone is instructional design manager, enterprise training, at MarketingProfs. She’s also a speaker, writer, attorney, and educator. She hosts and produces the weekly Marketing Smarts podcast. To contact Kerry about being a guest on Marketing Smarts, send her an email, or you can find her on Twitter (@KerryGorgone), Google+, and her personal blog.

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