How Twitter will corrupt contact
As companies fearfully monitor social media to damp down the sparks of complaint, they are lighting a fire under sustainable customer service, David Bowen says.
|Siemens contact page||Eni contact page|
I’ve been at the J Boye conference in Aarhus, Denmark, which was a gathering of the great and the wired of Scandinavia, and also of a good few folk from the United States. That’s because J Boye holds conferences in the US as well and was able to lure some Americans across the Atlantic with promises of all-you-can-eat Lego.
This split grouping (with a fewer hangers-on like me) was what made the conference so interesting. In particular, I learned how Americans are using social media in a way that bemused the Scandinavians. Even though the Danes are the most wired people on earth, they don’t do Twitter much. They don’t do cupcakes either; but Americans do.
So it was that I sat amazed as Mari Luangrath of Foiled Cupcakes in Chicago told us how she sold nearly all her products by using social media – her website didn’t work, so she didn’t have any choice but to start talking to people on Twitter, Facebook etc, and found she had a business.
Twitter sweet taste
But that is marketing – well covered elsewhere. What interested me was a casual comment that she had tweeted her dissatisfaction with her bank, and had been contacted by the bank’s customer service people “within minutes”. You mean, I said, you had sent them a direct message? No, no, she had simply mentioned that she had had a problem to the sweet-toothed gang of fans who followed her tweets.
What this means is that the bank is monitoring Twitter all the time, and leaps on anyone who makes any complaint, offering them comfort and reparations.
Why didn’t you e-mail them direct, we asked? Ms Luangrath looked baffled, as did the other Americans. Hadn’t we heard of Comcast Cares? No, we said. They patiently explained that Comcast, a cable and telecoms company that had had an iffy reputation for customer service, had become famous for monitoring social media and responding immediately to any negative posts. It worked so well that now everyone and their dog is doing it. In America, that is; not in Denmark.
But it was an American who also raised a worry about this. As we talked, I realised that this is a trend that should bother companies and their customers everywhere.
Pillory of society
The American was Bebo White, who looks like (and perhaps is) Father Christmas, and also built one of the first five websites in the world (for SLAC, which is the Californian cousin of CERN, where the web was born). His worry was that customer service à la Comcast is in essence based on blackmail. Why does it (and the bank and all these other corporations) respond to Twitter so quickly? Because the Twitter feed is public – you do not contact the company to make a complaint, you simply tell your friends about it. The company is watching Twitter like a hawk, because Twitter’s viral power is impressively scary and the last thing it wants is for the moan to be passed around faster than one of Bebo’s accelerated electrons.
It is perfectly logical for Americans to use Twitter in this way (I’m certainly not accusing anyone of deliberate blackmail), as it is perfectly rational for companies to attempt to stop bad words spreading. But is it, as I have seen claimed, some higher form of customer service? It is not – it is appalling, and it is probably unsustainable.
Loss of service
If companies are brilliantly geared up to monitor and respond to Twitter, why are they incapable of responding to e-mail (or phoned or written) complaints. Is the threat of blackmail any basis for a customer service policy?
Also, what happens if we all (Danes included) discover that the only way to get a complaint sorted is to tweet about it? There will be so many complaints that companies will be unable to respond to them all, and the whole system will become less and less effective. It works while Twitter is still a bit of a novelty; if it becomes a mainstream communications medium, it will not.
In our FT Bowen Craggs Index, we have kept ‘contact’ as a separate metric, because we believe that the website’s role as a contact point is a crucial one. Some groups believe the same, and provide carefully constructed routing systems – Siemens and Eni are good examples. But these systems only work if there is something behind them. If companies decide it makes more sense to spend money on monitoring and responding to Twitter than to run a conventional response system, will anyone end up the winner?
First published on 17 November, 2010