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On Twitter, Customer Service, and Scalability

by Joe Loong on January 29, 2009

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Talking about social media and customer service is probably more Shashi‘s realm than mine (he’s a real customer service mustang, having come up through the frontline ranks), but I’ll poach on his turf, anyway.

When it comes to ways companies can use Twitter, the premier example right now is how Comcast uses its @comcastcares account as a customer service channel. It’s gotten tons of play in the social media o’sphere, and is even credited for helping turn around Comcast’s spotty reputation on service issues.

What they do is conceptually pretty simple: They monitor Twitter posts for “Comcast” (as well as some less-flattering nicknames), and when someone posts with a problem or complaint, they’ll respond to the complainer and try to fix it. And since Twitter updates and replies are public, everyone else is able to see how helpful and responsive the company is being.

The idea was pioneered by Frank Eliason, Director of Digital Care for Comcast — BusinessWeek has a behind-the-scenes looks at how it works.

Now, the question that everyone asks is, “That’s great, but how does it scale?” Frank addresses some of the issues in a blog post (“The big question for @comcastcares is: How will they scale?“), though I think there are plenty of things left to talk about.

Clearly, you can’t just open up a Twitter account and expect your customer service problems to magically disappear. You have to look at Twitter as part of a company’s overall customer service/customer communication chain, which will probably also include phone, e-mail, and text chat, and you’ll need to look at how to integrate it and look at things like load distribution, ticketing, and issue tracking. Though those are largely technical issues, with technical and tool solutions.

The pure scaling issue, likewise, doesn’t seem insurmountable. Twitter service requests might still be small compared to those coming from phone and e-mail, but at least in Comcast’s example, Frank suggests that even if all of their e-mail and phone traffic turned into Twitter traffic, their staffing levels would be comparable, and that, in fact, Twitter would be preferable to phone support. (That part I can believe with no hesitation — companies hate hate hate phone support, since it’s expensive,  you’re basically limited to one call per person at a time, and a lot of that time is simply wasted, like when you’re waiting for your router or computer to reboot.)

However, the harder issue is training, motivation, and resourcing. At this point, it still seems like the Comcast team responding to Twitter issues is the customer service version of a SWAT team, where everyone is educated and empowered to solve problems. Ask anyone who’s ever had to get past a company’s first- or second-tier customer support before their problem got solved, and you’ll see this isn’t always the case. There’s a reason that “executive escalation” teams exist, and there’s also a reason why companies invariably have to change the direct line phone number when it gets out (as happens consumer community forums from time to time).

Good customer service is (or should be) independent of platform, though maybe Twitter does have advantages over other channels for customer service… not least of which is that your conversation on Twitter is public by default (thus, keeping you honest).

Anyway, I’m glad to see that companies like Comcast (and Network Solutions, of course) are looking at ways to use Twitter and other forms of social media to improve customer service.

If you’ve got your own thoughts about social media, scalability, and the customer experience, I’d love to hear them in the comments below.

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    • Tobias_B

      Social Media Service requires a different internal perspective. Why? Once you start listening, customers expect results on all fronts. From a customer perspective, Social Media opens a door most business are completely unprepared to walk through. The door is that of expectation. Solve my service problem – what else do you have? The answer in most companies is absolutely nothing. Here's why.

      Consumers use Social Media for dialog. This can be described as a one-to-one conversation where there is give and take. When we converse on a small scale, both parties can have influence. In a lot of cases, as with Twitter, these are personal conversations. People generally like to help people. This is the perspective the public has of a lot of social media. Keep this in mind, it is very important.

      Businesses are a culture, not a person. They have lots of moving parts, agendas, and masters. They see dealing with customers as a necessary function performed at best buy a team that might contribute something to the top line, but for the most part, Support is not a profit center.

      Humans using social media expect dialog. On Twitter, like it or not, I hear about people buying a cup of coffee, going to the gym, having a baby or surviving a plane crash. These are personal interactions – they drive the expectation of our experience with the medium.

      Businesses thrive on predictability. They classify, in order to find scale of economy. After the warm and fuzzy support-problem-solved feeling subsides, reality sets in, but an expectation has been set. The business has created a intimate relationship with a customer. A support issue is a point problem and if I solve it, I get a lot of goodwill. Congratulations, the business just set an expectation that the entire company and culture thinks the same way. That every interaction the customer has will come close to that experience.

      The question is, can the rest of the business live up to the expectation? So what are you doing to lower my cable bill? It has gone up every year since I first subscribed. What are you doing to get rid inconstancies between sales people? When I ask for information about services, I get a scripted response read by a person who might be artificially warm. If I call and say I'm changing providers, your response is to suddenly find scores of special deals. Why were these not available to me earlier? I had to say I was leaving. I applaud Comcast for wading into the SM waters, but if you have ever worked in the cable industry, you understand why it will be a cold day before the rest of the company can live up to the expectation set by ComcastCares.

      If you are a business and want to use this medium to improve your chances of capturing and retaining customers, you need to look at your entire culture and ask some very tough questions. This exercise is inevitable. The two choices facing you are 1) your customers will insist on better dialog or go somewhere else 2) technology will evolve and another business will embrace the concept and force a change.

    • Tobias_B

      Social Media Service requires a different internal perspective. Why? Once you start listening, customers expect results on all fronts. From a customer perspective, Social Media opens a door most business are completely unprepared to walk through. The door is that of expectation. Solve my service problem – what else do you have? The answer in most companies is absolutely nothing. Here's why.

      Consumers use Social Media for dialog. This can be described as a one-to-one conversation where there is give and take. When we converse on a small scale, both parties can have influence. In a lot of cases, as with Twitter, these are personal conversations. People generally like to help people. This is the perspective the public has of a lot of social media. Keep this in mind, it is very important.

      Businesses are a culture, not a person. They have lots of moving parts, agendas, and masters. They see dealing with customers as a necessary function performed at best buy a team that might contribute something to the top line, but for the most part, Support is not a profit center.

      Humans using social media expect dialog. On Twitter, like it or not, I hear about people buying a cup of coffee, going to the gym, having a baby or surviving a plane crash. These are personal interactions – they drive the expectation of our experience with the medium.

      Businesses thrive on predictability. They classify, in order to find scale of economy. After the warm and fuzzy support-problem-solved feeling subsides, reality sets in, but an expectation has been set. The business has created a intimate relationship with a customer. A support issue is a point problem and if I solve it, I get a lot of goodwill. Congratulations, the business just set an expectation that the entire company and culture thinks the same way. That every interaction the customer has will come close to that experience.

      The question is, can the rest of the business live up to the expectation? So what are you doing to lower my cable bill? It has gone up every year since I first subscribed. What are you doing to get rid inconstancies between sales people? When I ask for information about services, I get a scripted response read by a person who might be artificially warm. If I call and say I'm changing providers, your response is to suddenly find scores of special deals. Why were these not available to me earlier? I had to say I was leaving. I applaud Comcast for wading into the SM waters, but if you have ever worked in the cable industry, you understand why it will be a cold day before the rest of the company can live up to the expectation set by ComcastCares.

      If you are a business and want to use this medium to improve your chances of capturing and retaining customers, you need to look at your entire culture and ask some very tough questions. This exercise is inevitable. The two choices facing you are 1) your customers will insist on better dialog or go somewhere else 2) technology will evolve and another business will embrace the concept and force a change.