“I wanted to personally reach out…” You may be hearing those words a lot lately, as many major airlines recently sent Coronavirus updates to frequent fliers. But did their messaging and tone provide the reassurance they intended? And if not — how did it impact your impression of their brand?
Comparing emails from Alaska, United, Southwest, Delta, and Jet Blue, we found that surprisingly few hit the mark in making this important communication seem personal and reassuring.
Why does this matter? When a key communication sounds generic, it may get ignored. And that’s the last thing you want when you’re trying to support customers through a crisis. It underscores the importance of both what you say AND how well you say it. Particularly when people are anxious, your messaging needs to convey a tone and language that will resonate with customers as reassuring, relatable, and most of all — believable.
What stood out with these airline emails? Here’s our take on some comparisons impacting customer experience and brand reputation, and things to consider when writing communications for sensitive situations.
First things first – Subject line and Salutation
Crafting a compelling subject line is tough. Most of the airlines took the easy way out and made it generic.
Alaska – The only one that sounded energized: “Coronavirus Update: Actions we’re taking”
Jet Blue – Didn’t mention Corona/COVID in the subject line (“An update from Jet Blue“), only in the tiny-text mobile teaser, so the purpose of the email wasn’t immediately obvious and more likely to be ignored.
4 out of 5 of these airlines personalized the salutation with the customer’s first name, giving it a familiar tone.
Southwest – No personalized salutation, just “To our valued Customers”. Given the email was to loyal rewards customers, it was an unfortunate omission as it left us feeling less known, with no personal connection.
Jet Blue – While they did personalize the salutation, there was a typo in it. Right up front they showed us they are not being careful. (Yet that was the core topic of the message, so little details matter more than ever.)
Messaging and Tone
Hands-down, Alaska Airlines nailed it. Their email stood out as the most authentically warm and personal, while providing pertinent safety details. It was also the first one we received, with the others trailing in 3-5 days later. That timing, in itself, left an impression that Alaska is more proactive and in touch with consumer needs and concerns.
That said, even the best intended communications can have delays. But when we later received emails from United, Jet Blue, Southwest, and Delta – we were surprised at how noticeably they fell short of the bar Alaska had set.
Here are a few impressions on what worked, what didn’t, and why:
Relatable (or not)
Alaska’s email had an unusually personal closing, with the Chief Commercial Officer noting his own family’s upcoming vacation, making him (and, by extension, the brand) very human. While this approach might not be practical for many customer emails, when addressing highly personal concerns, it can make a powerful impression.
Jet Blue’s email lacked emotion entirely. It sounded rigidly tactical and overly formal, e.g., “safety is paramount” and “increasing the rigor of cleaning.” Would you talk like that in a conversation to reassure a customer? While your business may want to appear authoritative, it’s important to sound warm and conversational. Especially for sensitive situations, your messaging should aim to make people feel comfortable.
Believable (or not)
Delta reinforced credibility by saying, “For more than a decade, Delta has been preparing for such a scenario” and noting their ongoing and latest efforts. It was an effective way to provide reassurance by clarifying they are prepared for serious situations and have contingency plans in place.
3 of the 5 airlines called us “family” (United, Delta, Southwest) — yet we rarely feel treated like family by any airline, in the airport or on a plane. It’s a good reminder that what you say needs to be consistent with the real-world customer experience, to avoid sounding like empty marketing-speak.
Alaska kept their messaging reassuring and upbeat, e.g., “Please be assured that…” “extra steps we’re taking to keep our guests safe” “We are optimistic about the future and hope you feel that way too.” They addressed the severity of the situation with empathy, while reinforcing the safety measures they’re taking.
With Southwest, we were really surprised at the rigid language and cold tone. In missing the friendly feeling we associate with this airline, we didn’t recognize the brand at all. A key example was that the email consistently referred to “Customers” (capital C) in third person, instead of speaking directly to us. Remember that your loyalty members are high value customers, so your communications need to make them feel valued.
Points for readability: United was the only one of 5 airlines to use subheadings to break up a long wall of text. That’s no small thing. They do, however, have an opportunity to put more “friendly” in the “friendly skies.”
Moral of the story
If you want to connect with customers — especially with communications for sensitive situations — your messages need to sound like trusted conversations. That means conveying empathy and an approachable tone, and using simple, customer-focused language, no matter how serious or complex the topic.
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