Travel companies that failed to respond adequately to customer demands for information during the ash flights ban crisis can expect to see lasting damage to their brands, a communications management specialist has warned.

RightNow Technologies product marketing director Andrew Hull, who was stuck in the UK last week during a trip from RightNow’s US base, said the crisis had underlined how crucial it was that travel firms were prepared for such eventualities.

He cited a European airline that sent an update email to customers of one flight but didn’t hide email addresses, prompting criticism for disclosing customers’ personal details. The bad practice was criticised on Twitter.

Hull said it was vital that businesses handled crises such as the ash cloud by not only communicating with customers but doing so professionally.

“Ideally, as a company, you will have thought about situations like this ahead of time and you will have multiple ways of interacting with your clients,” he said.

“Having many touch points – mobile phone, live chat, social media – can be really daunting for companies to handle.”

A common theme during the ash cloud crisis was customers not being able to get through to call centres due to the sheer volume of calls.

This prompted some customers to vent their frustrations publicly on Twitter and Facebook.

Hull said using technology to ensure advice and frequently asked questions could be easily accessed would have helped firms, some of which saw call volumes increase by 2,000% during the ash crisis hit.

He said this crisis was one of the largest RightNow had had to deal since it was set up 13 years ago. “We have a lot of travel and leisure companies as clients, so they were all impacted at once,” he added.

Hull said one of the biggest issues during the crisis was companies not giving consistent information through their various channels, with call centres sometimes saying something different to the advice online.

“That made the situation worse,” said Hull. “People will use different channels and if answers are different it can cause more confusion and anger your customers.

“Companies can really do themselves a disservice by supplying different channels with inconsistent information. That’s a really common problem.”

Surveys of consumers by RightNow suggested customers that have a bad experience were 85% less likely to use that company again, Hull said.

“The fallout of this crisis is going to go on for days. If airspace is shut down again we will see another spike in activity, so companies have to have dynamic systems to help employees cope and get information out to customers.”