The real problem with Ann Coulter’s seat fiasco

Ann Coulter apparently thinks Delta is the “worst airline in America.” Over the weekend and into Monday, she posted a series of angry tweets aimed at Delta Airlines, a flight attendant, and a fellow passenger after being asked to move from a seat with extra legroom that she had “carefully chosen in advance and booked.”

She even posted a picture of the woman her seat was given to. The airline promptly responded to Coulter’s outburst, calling Coulter’s behavior “unnecessary and unacceptable.”

My first reaction was: Ann Coulter flies coach? She books her own travel online? I have to admit, I would have assumed she was in the private jet set, or at least the first-class class. I cannot picture her on her laptop carefully selecting her own seat like the rest of us, agonizing over whether to plunk down an extra 30 bucks so that our femurs can fit along with our torsos in the seat.

While I very much understand Coulter’s frustration at being re-seated, the bottom line is that Delta reserves the right to move passengers around if, for example, they have to accommodate the seating requirements of customers with certain types of disabilities.

Coulter was probably entitled to be refunded the premium she paid for the extra legroom without having to ask — or tweet — about it. A frustrating experience, to be sure, but Delta was within its (reserved) rights.

The bigger issue is that Coulter’s Twitter tussle is about an emerging new norm: ranting at customer service via social media, which in turn leads the company to respond to (and therefore encourage) the rant.

Customers who complain to customer service via Twitter come off a little selfish. It’s subtle (or sometimes not-so-subtle) social media extortion. It says: “fix MY problem, or I’ll say bad things about you to my followers, who are now my leverage against you.”

In the eyes of the law, or a customer service 1-800 number, we’re all created equal, and we all equally wait for our call to be “answered in the order it was received.”

In social media, that’s not the case. When celebrities like actor Patrick Stewart tweet their complaints about a cable company, it shows they are more important to the company than the rest of us.

At least with traditional customer service, there was some illusion of equality. Sure, I’m spending half an hour on hold and getting repeatedly transferred to oblivion, but at least all the other customers are getting this treatment. Misery loves company.

But tweeting at customer service? Okay, it’s vaguely “democratic,” but it reveals a dark truth: A company doesn’t care about its customers. It cares about bad publicity. The only reason a company responds right away on Twitter, while untold masses of traditional 800-number callers are wasting their lives on hold, is because the company is worried about the threat of social media shame.

Make no mistake about it: Ann Coulter got a prompt response because she has more than 1.6 million followers.

Over the last 24 hours there were surely hastily arranged meetings, telephone conferences and e-mail chains at Delta about how to address the “Ann Coulter Seat Issue.” Companies definitely don’t mobilize the Fast Response Unit when the rest of us have the same problem. We wait on hold like everyone else.

In fairness, customer service does respond to the tweets of regular folks too, from time to time. But even that seems fundamentally unfair. Why should an online tantrum garner an immediate response from a company while the rest of us who have the dignity to call customer service one-on-one are still on hold?

Don’t think for a second that this is a defense of companies and their customer service. The state of customer service today drives people to act out on social media about … customer service. Companies spend billions of dollars inundating us with advertising and inducements to buy their product. They seem to focus a fraction of resources on servicing the customer after we’ve paid for that product.

A company with the size and resources of Delta thinks nothing of spending $2.8 million on a 30-second TV ad during the Super Bowl to get you to buy their stuff. But spending money on a customer service call center in the United States? That’s too expensive. Let’s move that center abroad.

Or, instead of employing 10 customer service operators, let’s employ one social media monitor to offer sympathetic replies to VIP complainers on Twitter like Ann Coulter. The company looks “responsive” without having to BE responsive.

Actually servicing customers is expensive. Tweeting positive things at them is not. Tweeting positive things at Ann Coulter could even be an advertising windfall for the company, if the tweet reaches even a fraction of her millions of followers.

To a company’s social media presence, Ann Coulter is a Very Important Passenger … even if she is flying coach.

As for the rest of us? We’re still on hold.

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