Posted January 17, 2013 5:29 pm by with 13 comments

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cutomer service signA survey conducted in May of last year showed that 60% of businesses in the US and the UK use social media for customer service. They say they do it because it benefits their customers, but to me it always feels like a PR moment.

HandyDandy Tweets that his cable is out. The cable company responds moments later, saying they’re actively working on the problem and the whole world can see the exchange. There’s a problem but it’s being fixed – and in many cases, that’s all a person wants to know.

But it’s not quite that simple. According to Reuters, companies are rethinking their social media strategy and a few big names are taking customer service off the table.

In December, Charter, the fourth largest cable company in the US, shut down their social media customer service program “Umatter2Charter.” They say they’d rather concentrate their efforts on traditional support channels. Grocery chain Wegmans went so far as to close their Facebook Page. They say monitoring the page was too time consuming and complaints often went unanswered for an unacceptable period of time.

Wegmans is not alone in that.

A study by ZenDesk showed that only 13% of customer service complaints on Twitter got a response. Even when companies did respond, 37% took up to 10 hours to get it done. So much for the real time nature of social media.

response time

The biggest problem with social media for customer service is that there’s really only one response to a problem – “we’ll look into it.”

Companies can’t do much more than that in public. They can’t solve your outage, refund your money or track a missing package unless the consumer forwards more information through a private channel. Still, there are times when a public customer service effort makes a difference.

For example, GoDaddy had another outage earlier this week. I was going to call support but a quick search of Twitter told me that it was a wide-spread problem so calling support was going to be a waste of time. I added my complaint to Twitter and moved on. Then GoDaddy did two things wrong. First, they continued to load their feed with the usual promotional Tweets without a single mention of a problem. What that tells me is that the person handling the account is in marketing and support didn’t communicate with them. I would have felt much better if I saw a Tweet saying, yes, there’s a problem, we’re working on it.

A day later, I got a direct message saying, sorry you had a problem, DM me back and I’ll help you fix it. I appreciate the outreach but again, it was clearly a large database issue on their end, so calling support wouldn’t help. Second, really? We’re going to do this over Twitter?

Experts say that when you convert an angry customer into a happy customer, they become even more dedicated to your brand. But handing customer service via a public medium is like walking through a muddy mine field. At the very least, you’re going to get dirty. Take one wrong step and it’s game over.

What’s your take on using social media for customer service?




  • FrankReed

    I guess my question is that if you are on social media can you AVOID it being a customer service tool even if you wanted to. People go to social to vent as well sing praises. If you are public facing the public will do what it wants.

    Not seeing taking down social media properties is the best tactic though but it sure keeps the complaints down!

  • royatkinson

    Cynthia – This is a good look at some of the reasons social media customer service needs a lot of work. But let’s pull out some of the things you stated:

    “I was going to call support but a quick search of Twitter told me that
    it was a wide-spread problem so calling support was going to be a waste
    of time.”

    So, without calling and waiting in what undoubtedly was a lengthy queue, or filling out an arcane web form, you found out that it wasn’t just you, and that the issue was known.

    “…really? We’re going to do this over Twitter?”

    Twitter was the channel you chose. They were certainly slow and late, no doubt, but they did respond in the channel where you made your inquiry. The length of time it took tells me they simply don’t have staff equipped to handle any volume when there’s a problem, that they don’t have social channels integrated into their customer relationship management tools, and that the sense of urgency wasn’t there.

    “The biggest problem with social media for customer service is that
    there’s really only one response to a problem – ‘we’ll look into it.'”

    There are other courses of action, such as sending a link to a specific piece of information, gathering more info through a DM on Twitter or Facebook message, and then responding in the way you indicate. For example, your DM to the company might say, “Please call me at 555-555-5555 between 7 PM and 9 PM this evening.” It’s then up to the service organization to fulfill that request, or to answer suggesting a different time. Personally, I’ve been able to change a flight itinerary from an Internet-equipped airplane in flight using only Twitter.

    Some of the difficulties you describe also exist in other channels: Not enough staff (or not equipped to deal with the issue), poor communication, and incomplete strategy, which leaves gaps in the customer service provided.

    You are right about social media airing your problems in public, but I think companies need to make the choice between having people yelling on social media and not being involved in the conversation, or at least being part of the conversation.

    Thanks for helping us think about the issues involved.

  • Social media customer service is an instant target for brands. If they are not monitoring and replying they should not even be in the fray. GoDaddy did two things wrong. Their social media team was not live monitoring and was depending on pre-packaged tweets. As a customer, you saw there was an issue through others Tweets, all you needed was an acknowledgement, that’s how it should work. Plenty of brands are doing it right. Let the naysayers take a look at how it should be done.

  • Businesses should consider using social media for their customer service. You stated that your issues will not be resolved right then and there. That it still needs to be forwarded. Although it will not be resolved immediately, the fact that it was acknowledge is good enough.

    Businesses should bear in mind that more and more consumers go online to complain, and if these complains go unresolved, it will stay there for a long time.

  • Two reasons. 1) Twitter has limits on building relationships – its good for broadcasting and status updates and/or 2) Companies Twitter accounts have been run by marketing and they don’t have the processes in place to handle large contact volumes (which is what the contact centre does well). I believe the second one is the most likely

  • Shell Robshaw-Bryan

    Even if you have very clearly defined customer service channels, customers will still contact companies via social media. Ignoring people who Tweet about a missed delivery or order discrepency, or post on Facebook asking for pre-sales advice is a grave error that should be avoided. Always respond to customers no matter what, even if its just to apologise and explain you can’t deal with the issue and give them further information on how to get the information they want or resolve whatever issue they might have.

    Allowing social media to function as a first line, initial contact point works. I spent 2 years doing exactly this and the large internet retailer I worked for was able to literally transform the negative sentiment it had previously suffered from and slowly, being helpful and dealing with customers problems lead to much higher levels of customer satisfaction.

    Issues may not be resolved there and then, but the difference between good customer service and bad, is that you allow your customers to contact you in a way that suits them. If you aren’t equipped to deal directly with customer service issues via social, it doesn’t matter! Simply responding positively to a customer and pointing them in the direction of your official support forum or whatever you might have, is often all it takes to nurture a good customer experience.

    Many businesses are scared that customers contacting them to resolve issues via social is a bad reflection of their brand – rubbish! Resolving customer service problems publicly is a very smart move indeed and something I explore in detail in my ubersocialmedia blog.

    Not only do you have the chance to turn a negative experience around for the individual concerned, but you are actively demonstrating to all your followers/fans that you provide high levels of customer service, which will amplify and drive trust in a way that far exceeds the narrow reach of your usual customer service channels.

  • Linda O’Neill

    A best practice for customer service is to invite the customer to resolve their issues 1:1 when it makes the most sense of of the public channel/venue. If they are looking for standard, basic info–I think it’s great to share the content or refer them to a quick way to find what they need. If it’s beyond that and the situation requires personal details about the service, product, person–take then offline to your internal best practice/process. I would say let them benefit from traditional customer service with social as a means to engage, not necessarily solve in public.

  • Linda O’Neill

    I have one more follow-on for this article: Are these dis-engaged companies still listening to gather root-cause information that can help them in continuous process improvement? There may be some good news stories to tell there.

  • Two possibilities vis a vis Charter:

    1. Charter Communications is a natural monopoly, i.e. monopoly granted by the government with the promise of a basic level of service. They have little incentive to spend money on servicing customers when they’re already the only game in town.

    2. They did the numbers and it wasn’t worth the cost. I would trust that a large corporation like that would be well aware of the costs of retaining vs acquiring new customers. I’d also be totally shocked if they didn’t maintain a very detailed CRM, including social media interactions with customers. It’s worth pointing out they shuttered their services close to the new fiscal year, probably about when internal reporting would be able to demonstrate any causal relationships between customers serviced via social media and costs. It could be as simple as the added channel did not match the added cost.

    Lastly, I’d like to point out that there’s been some hyperbole in the comments here. Using social media as a customer service outlet is not the glue holding together a companies marketing, big or small. Additionally, Twitter’s moves to hide tweets beginning with @responses from both the stream and feed severely limits the reach of a companies efforts, so the public-facing support angle has been cut back quite a bit. Let’s keep level heads.

  • This is a no single tool matter. Twitter is an excelent tool for some actions but you will also need more traditional channels.
    GiffGaff, for example, has a customer support based on customers (via tweets & boards).


  • Traditional customer service certainly gets its share of bad-mouthing: endless pre-categorized “service” menu selections followed by long wait times to speak with a customer representative, plus the constant risk of getting disconnected, or the call dropping in the middle of the wait. So if going back there exclusively is the choice, brands better think twice about it now that sharing that bad experience is so easy. Social media is now giving us a great alternative to telephone customer service and the lines at the in-store returns desks. Many who are getting shunned by traditional customer service are now getting satisfaction through Twitter. If you turn off that channel, you better be prepared for it all happening without your participation, and that will not be good news. The channel is there and if you are not listening it will go on without you. Using Twitter as a customer service tool actually makes a lot of sense – for your customers and for your brand.

    When Customer Service drops the ball, who do you call… Twitter??? So if you are not there, consider the consequences.

    VISIBILITY: For your customer, the direct yet very public nature of tweets gives your customers a way to “keep you in line” and make you pay attention. One customer tweet including a wisely-placed hashtag (#) and your brand name can make quite a statement. A customer complaint over Twitter can spread like wildfire.

    For your brand, no matter whether the customer tweets are positive or negative about your brand, you have the chance to show your current and potential customers the quality of your customer service. Good or bad, your customer service is now visible to thousands, so make it GREAT. Show you are listening, and dedicate resources there.

    NOVELTY: For your customer, there is still a sense of novelty to using Twitter as a Customer Service tool. Interacting with a brand over Twitter is an interesting story to share with their networks to create a few minutes of mini-celebrity for your customer and to show you are listening.

    For your brand, your customer service department members can enjoy knowing this is a fairly new way of working with customers. Let your business’ customer service be “cutting edge” and that enthusiasm will go far with your customers! Not only are not all using this channel, but as this post clearly states many are backing away due to not understanding and wrapping their arms around how to use it best. Social is here to stay and only becoming more a part of our daily lives. Abandoning it as a channel will come back to haunt you… IMHO.

    SPEED: For your customer, a Tweet is practically instantaneous and if properly managed you can respond quickly as well. Compare that to other methods of customer service! The response time to a customer service related tweet tells an important story about your brand, and your customers ARE paying attention.

    For your brand, you have a chance to notice, respond to, and resolve customer issues within minutes. Issue turnaround time speaks volumes for brand, and Twitter gives you a place to showcase your responsiveness. And remember, your great customer service immediately becomes positive PR — all it takes for your customers to spread the word are a few tweets to their network, and the re-tweets follow from there!

  • I know the team at GoDaddy really does care and continually tries to serve their customers via Twitter. However, you bring up a great point (and suggestion) for them to improve their outbound updates about service issues.

    I believe many companies fear that their customers will somehow leave them if they publish updates that they are aware of a problem and working on it. Honestly, if a customer leaves simply because you are communicating about a problem, you don’t want them anyways. I believe most happy customers are comforted when you get ahead of a customer service issue rather than them hearing about it from their friends.

  • Robert Bacal

    Simply put for the majority of businesses Twitter doesn’t have a positive effect on customer service. Not only doesn’t it work, but it CANNOT work well, a few of the reasons posted in the article above. Here’s an article on the reasons why social media is actually driving customer perceptions negatively. It complements this article well.