Southwest Airlines ran into a bit of a turmoil couple of weeks ago after removing movie director Kevin Smith from a flight. Cause: Too overweight to fit in one seat. The incident didn’t end up particularly well, since Mr. Kevin Smith shared his discomfort with his plus one million Twitter followers.

The damage was done even though Southwest Airlines social media team and PR people rushed into cool things off. Why? As Paul Carr at TechCrunch points out, media just loooves Twitter campaigns, regardless whether the person or company being mistreated is famous or not. As the Twittersphere keeps growing it just won’t be enough for companies to praise its customers like Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly does. Unless every employee is to run a check on how influential a customer and his/her Twitter followers are, before even thinking of not treating a customer at the very best to avoid a meltdown, quote: “Companies are going to have to start treating every single person in the world like a VIP.” (Even with the Twitter check one still can’t be sure. The customer might just know the power of hashtags and fire off #fail and #whateverthecompanysnameis, and off the Twitter avalanche goes.) 

Like any startup and true entrepreneur knows, every person and customer is important. This is where I think AirAsia is getting a head start regarding real-time social media.

I found Tony Fernandes while putting up a list of this year’s Formula One teams and drivers  for the upcoming season premiere. Tony is the principal of the new Lotus F1 team, but besides that, he’s also the CEO of AirAsia, and the founder of Tune Group. But most importantly, he’s an entrepreneur. I counted up to five corporate Twitter accounts, and yet, Tony has his own where he answers customers personally, as quickly as possible. (See the two examples below.)

Tonyfernandestwitter1Tonyfernandestwitter2

There’s a difference to state that every customer is important, than to actually act by it, thus I wasn’t surprised to find AirAsia on the Fast Company 2008 list over the most innovative companies. Naturally, a CEO’s account is not to be abused as customer service channel when alternatives are available, but to me these conversations are also a sign of trust and mutual respect.

Sure, Soutwest Airlines serves today five times more passengers than AirAsia, and just by creating a Twitter account for a CEO won’t solve any problems (I haven’t found a Twitter account matching CEO Gary Kelly). Although Southwest Airlines has already created a great online and social media presence, I’m still convinced that it’s far more difficult to even begin to understand or adjust ones corporate culture to the impact that real-time social web brings to customer relations, if oneself doesn’t somehow give it a try. I have a feeling that AirAsia, with its twittering CEO as a role model for his crew, is far more prepared and equipped to tackle with a Kevin Smith seat-gate, should that ever occur.

Nevertheless, I have to hand it to Gary for his openness and transparency with this entertaining clip. 

Side Note:
Mallrats by Kevin Smith is still one of his absolute best movies. “That kid is back… on the escalator again!” 

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