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What Governments can Learn about Citizen Engagement from Air Canada

Yes. You read that title right.

Yes, airlines are not known for their customer responsiveness. Ask anyone whose been trapped on a plane on the tarmac for 14 hours. You know when Congress has to pass a customer bill of rights for your industry you’ve really dropped the ball.

Air Canada, however, increasingly seems to be the exception to this rule. And their recent response to online customer feedback is instructive of why this is the case. For governments interested in how to engage citizens online and improving services, Air Canada is an interesting case study.

The Background

Earlier this year, with great fanfare, Air Canada announced it was changing how it managed its frequent flyer reward system. Traditional, it had given out upgrade certificates which allowed customers who’d flown a certain number of flights the ability to upgrade themselves into business class for free. Obviously the people who use these certificates are some of Air Canada’s more loyal customers (to get certificates you have to be flying a fair amount). The big change was that rather than simple giving customers certificates after flying a certain number of miles, customers would earn “points” which they could allocate towards flights.

This was supposed to be a good news story because a) it meant that users had greater flexibility around how they upgraded themselves and b) the whole system was digitized so that travelers wouldn’t have to carry certificates around with them (this was the most demanded feature by users).

The Challenge

In addition to the regular emails and website announcements an Air Canada representative also announced the new changes on a popular air traveler forum called Flyertalk.com. (Note: Here is the first great lesson – don’t expect customers or citizens to come to you… go to where they hang out, especially your most hard core stakeholders).

Very quickly these stakeholders began to run the numbers and began discovering various flaws and problems. Some noticed that the top tier customers were getting as lesser deal than more regular customers. Others began to sniff out how the new program meant their benefits were essentially being cut. In short, the very incentives the rewards program was supposed to create were being undermined. Indeed the conversation thread extended to over 113 pages. With roughly 15 comments per page, that meant around 1500 comments about the service.

This, of course, is what happens with customers, stakeholder and citizens in a digital world. They can get together. They can analyze your service. And they will notice any flaws or changes that does not seem above board or is worse than before.

So here, on Flyertalk, Air Canada has some of its most sophisticated and important customers – the people that will talk to everyone about Air travel rewards programs, starting to revolt against its new service which was supposed to be a big improvement. This, is a little bit of a crisis.

The Best Practice

Firstly, Air Canada was smart because it didn’t argue with anyone. It didn’t have communication people trying to explain to people how they were wrong.

Instead it was patient. It appeared silent. But in reality it was doing something more important, it was listening.

Remember many of these users know the benefits program better than most Air Canada employees. And it has real impact on their decisions, so they are going to analyze it up and down.

When it finally did respond, it did several things right.

First, it responded in Flyertalk.com – again go where the conversation (it subsequently sent around an email to all its members).

Second, it noted that it had been listening and learning from its customers.

Third, more than just listen, it had taken its customers feedback and used it to revise its air travel rewards program.

Fourth, and most importantly, the tone is serious, but engaging. Look at the first few sentences:

Thanks to everyone for the comments that have been posted here the last few days, and especially those who took the time to post some very valuable, constructive feedback. While it’s not our intent to address every issue raised on this forum on the changes to the 2011 Top Tier program, some very valid points were raised which we agree should be addressed to the best of our ability. These modifications are our attempt to do just that.

Governments, this is a textbook case on how to listen to citizens. They use your services. They know how they work. The single biggest take away here is, when they complain and construct logical arguments about why a service doesn’t make sense use that feedback to revise the service and make it better. People don’t want to hear why you can’t make it better – they want you to make it better. More importantly, these types of users are the ones who know your service the best and who talk to everyone about it. They are your alpha users – leverage them!

Again, to recap. What I saw Air Canada do that was:

  • Engage their stakeholders where their stakeholders hang out (e.g. not on the Air Canada website)
  • Listen to what their stakeholders had to say
  • Used that feedback to improve the service
  • Communicated with them in a direct and frank manner

Air Canada is doing more than just getting this type of engagement right. Their twitter account post actual useful information, not just marketing glop and spin. Not sure who is doing social media for them, but definitely worth watching.

There’s a lot here for organizations to learn from there. And for a company that used to be a crown corp – I think that should mean there is hop for your government too – even if they presently ban access to facebook, twitter, my blog, etc…

Big thank you to Mike B. for point this cool case study out to me.

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Mick Phythian

Hi David,

That’s an excellent post and I think you are spot on for the most part! One little thing is that I don’t think citizens always know how government works, nor should they need to, but we should account for this when delivering services. It’s possibly easier in the US with the distinction between federal and the rest, but elsewhere there can be many layers with services split between them – the joins need to be more seamless for the citizen. We may need to explain who clears the snow 🙂 , who issues the parking ticket and why it’s that way when we sort out their problems.

Mick http://greatemancipator.com

Joseph Porcelli


This is one the best posts I’ve read all year. Thank for sharing this with us!

For best practices I would add a few more tactics:

  1. Form a “Program Customer Advisory Board” to vet future programs before they are introduced
  2. Proactively announce new programs, provide updates, and request suggestions on Flyertalk

The question that needs to be addressed, and this is required before best practices can be implemented, is how has Air Canada managed to demonstrate it’s values and empower it’s employees to engage it’s customers in this way did?

Christina Morrison

Letting stakeholders know that they are listening and incorporating their feedback will foster further communication and helpful feedback. This model could certainly fit for other organizations, but I think it would be an especially good fit for local governments. In a sense – it’s similar to the Manor, Texas idea of taking in feedback to help solve problems that plague the city government, and rewarding citizens who come up with the best ideas.