Screw You: Alaska Airlines Teach Us About Internet Marketing and Customer Service

Ian Lurie

Update: The point of this post is internet marketing, and the fact that honesty – and apologies – go much further than ignoring the problem. A few folks pointed out that I spent more time bitching about Alaska Airlines than talking about the marketing stuff. My bad. I usually try to sandwich my posts in some story from real life. It creates a connection, makes stuff make more sense, plus it’s a lot more fun for me. This time, I leaned a little too far toward reality, I guess. If you want to skip my whining, go straight to Good Internet Marketing Avoids that Stony Silence. You’ll get the point, without the complaint.

No one expects perfection. They expect decent treatment. There’s a difference.
Today, I flew home from SES New York on Alaska Airlines. I arrived at Newark airport at 2:30 and walked over to the Alaska Airlines ticket counter.
There was no one there.
Nor was there a sign explaining anything, or any indication when someone might show up.
There were another 12 or so people looking thoroughly irritated.
I called the airline on my cell phone. Guess what? No one comes to check folks in until 3 PM.

poor service

Good Internet Marketing Avoids That Stony Silence

The mere fact that no one was there didn’t really irritate me.
The stony silence with which Alaska Airlines greeted us did.
The same holds for your customers, trust me. Avoid the stony silence: When something goes wrong, inform them. Be honest and direct. You might lose customers, but you’ll lose fewer than if you ignore a problem.

Avoiding the Stony Silence: An Example

Two years ago, we accidentally sent dozens of e-mails to each subscriber on a client’s house e-mail list. Once we found the error we turned it off, which is good. But we still filled a lot of folks’ e-mail boxes with copies of the same offer, again and again.
We didn’t wait for the first customer complaint. We immediately sent out another e-mail (ironic, I know) with an apology, and a big button to allow them to unsubscribe.
The message: We’re sorry, but we’ll understand if you want out.
Not one person unsubscribed. Nor did anyone call our client demanding an explanation.

It’s Not Damage Control

Don’t treat it as ‘damage control’. Damage control is what you use to fix a leak in a sinking ship. An apology is between friends. Your customers will know the difference.

10 Tips To Apologize Right

  1. Server down? If it’s just the database that’s dead, post a single page saying the site’s kaput, you know, and you’re working on it. If the whole server’s trashed, point your web address at another server and put the notification page there. It’s not as hard as it sounds. With the right web host it takes just a few minutes, and it’s worth it.
  2. If your site was flat on its back for a long time, e-mail our customers explaining what happened, what you did to fix it, and what you’re doing to make sure it won’t happen again.
  3. If you screw up an order, say you’re sorry. Then waive the shipping and handling charge. The customer should pay for the product, regardless, but at that point your service isn’t worth much. Waiving charges tells the customer you understand that.
  4. If you have an annoying bug that took a long time to fix, see tip 2.
  5. If you think it’s appropriate, use humor. I once sent a client a supersize jar (think 2 liters) of Motrin with a note, “Sorry for the headache”. In that situation it didn’t come off as glib. Be careful though – if you’re not sure if humor’s a good idea, don’t use it.Be fast! If you wait 2 weeks before admitting that yes, you did lose all that data, you’re only going to look foolish. Plus your audience will assume you were pressured into the admission. You’ll lose their trust.
  6. Be affirmative. Don’t blame someone else. Don’t talk about all the damage your business suffered. No one cares (sorry, but it’s true). Tell what you’re going to do to make it up and fix the problem.
  7. Proofread. Sending me a message saying “Were sorry” only makes me think you’re an idiot.
  8. Do not require a response! You’ve already inconvenienced the customer. If you’re offering them a coupon or some such, make it easy for them to use, whenever they want to. Don’t demand that they act immediately.
  9. Remind them of the good times. There’s nothing wrong with pointing out some of the good stuff you’ve done for them, either. Perspective is important, and the customer won’t have it just then.

Alaska Airlines: Epilogue

At about 3 PM, three surly ticket agents showed up. One grabbed my bag and threw it a surprising distance onto the conveyor belt, curtly informed me there were no first class seats available and yelled “next”.
Frankly, I preferred the stony silence.

Ian Lurie

Ian Lurie is founder of Portent. He's been a digital marketer since the days of AOL and Compuserve (25 years, if you're counting). Ian's recorded training for, writes regularly for the Portent Blog and has been published on AllThingsD, Smashing Magazine, and TechCrunch. Ian speaks at conferences around the world, including SearchLove, MozCon, Seattle Interactive Conference and ad:Tech. He has published several books about business and marketing: One Trick Ponies Get Shot, available on Kindle, The Web Marketing All-In-One Desk Reference for Dummies, and Conversation Marketing. Ian is now an independent consultant and continues to work with the Portent team- training the agency group on all things digital. You can find him at

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  1. Add “Spirit Airlines” to your list – not even sure they fly out to your neck of the woods… but they are HORRIBLE. I had a complaint once and was waiting to the side of the ticket counter to talk to the “supervisor”… one of the ladies at the counter kept talking to me (not being nice, but at least was trying to interact with me while she was checking in other passengers.) The supervisor I was waiting to talk to actually told her to stop talking to me and continued to ignore me. What made all of this happen? They overbooked the flight and couldn’t get me to my destination, didn’t offer me a later flight – NOTHING.
    Okay – so your article was more about apologizing to customers vs. airlines, but just felt like venting!

  2. This appears to be a trend with Newark. I sat there for 4hrs while they drove a part in from Boston, staring at my paltry $5 “customer care coupon” that I could spend nowhere since everything was closed by the time they gave them out. See #9.
    (However, I have had nothing but good dealings with Alaska in Seattle.)

  3. Funny, I am ALSO on that flight and also got to the airport early as I was done speaking at my SES session and hit the airport early. So I was stuck waiting around until 3pm to check my baggage. I think I was the one who you told after the phone call that no one would be there til 3pm. Then, I saw this post on Sphinn as I am killing time in TGI Fridays. Too funny!

  4. Small, small world. Did the folks that showed up to check us in scare you as much as they scared me? I thought the person helping me was going to throw ME on the conveyor belt…

  5. Sorry to see such behavior from airline companies.
    and you are right, you should apologize for you mistakes, it costs you much less then hiding the problem.

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