Twitter has already skyrocketed out of the domain of techies and early adopters and has firmly become mainstream. Countless brands have taken advantage of the microblogging service's unique attributes to communicate directly with their customers.
Twitter is chockablock with marketing opportunities for brands large and small -- it's easy to promote, to market, and to get an immediate pulse of what's hot right now. But at this point, every marketer worth their salt should know that Twitter isn't about pushing a product -- it's about two-way conversations, and it's this attribute that makes the microblogging service a perfect customer service tool.
Consumers, be they loyal supports of your brand, or detractors who feel they've been done wrong, are offering testimonials on Twitter on a daily basis; 140-character screeds or questions, presenting conundrums that can often be easily solved. A well-monitored and maintained Twitter presence can give your brand consumer clout, sway the detractors, and easily prove that you care about your customers.
Brands like Comcast and Sprint are using Twitter to simultaneously improve their customer satisfaction while earning the accolades of their peers. Here's how they're responding to customer issues, and how you can craft a strategy for an equally effective customer service presence on Twitter.
Outline your goals
Planning to use Twitter as a customer service tool is no different than using it as a marketing tool. Before diving in, you have to know exactly what it is you want to accomplish on the social network. "A lot of people don't know [what they want from Twitter]," says Denise McVey, president of the agency S3. "It's better to not be part of Twitter if you don't know what you want to do. You don't want to be on there and make a negative impression and come across as too self-serving."
Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, employs a team of 10 tweeters to help customers with various issues and difficulties, but it didn't simply dive right in. Frank Eliason, Comcast's director of digital care, monitored the Comcast-related conversations on Twitter for two months before launching the company's main account, @comcastcares in April 2008.
The strategy paid off greatly. Comcast's name is synonymous with customer service on Twitter, and the company's customer-satisfaction ratings have grown greatly, thanks in large part to its Twitter presence. Between the 10 accounts responsible for handling customer service issues, Comcast has amassed more than 26,000 followers. Those aren't necessarily Ashton Kutcher numbers, but Comcast is so prominent on Twitter that customers will often come directly to them to resolve issues large and small.
"For us, our purpose is to listen to customers and help where we can," says Comcast's director of digital care, Frank Eliason. "Meet the customers where they already are, and try to stick to your goals. I don't do marketing pitches too often."
The Comcast team will monitor conversations and chime in to help those with problems, then follow through until the problems are resolved. Sometimes it's as easy as telling a customer to restart their wireless router, and other times it requires sending a technician to the customer's home.
With a wireless provider like Sprint, which has 48 million customers, there are bound to be occasional issues. The goal of Sprint's Twitter presence is to present another medium for people with problems, be they questions about phones, service, coverage in their area, plans, and policies.
The five-person team that monitors Twitter for Sprint is based in the public relations department, so they'll often interact with the customers and take the issues to the customer care team so they can be resolved.
"Twitter is not going to replace basic customer care phone centers, but it does complement it and shows you can help, and that you're actually listening and making an effort," Justin Goldsborough, a communications manager at Sprint, says.
At the same time, responding to customer-related issues via Twitter is an easy way to show your customers that you care and potentially turn a negative experience into a very positive one.
"There are a couple of anecdotal stats I've heard," Goldsborough says. "The one I always use is if you get somebody who's upset about your service or your brand and you're able to turn that story around and make it positive, [the consumer] is 10 times more likely to be a brand advocate for you."
But customer service doesn't have to be all about solving major issues and complaints. Take S3's client, Eight O'Clock coffee. The company's Twitter page, @8OClockCoffee offers promotions and tips for brewing, but the brand also helps consumers find a store that carries the product in their area.
Give it a face
Twitter's most obvious attribute is that it is deeply personal, so while users spout about trivialities such as their lunch plans, they'll also write about what's bothering them. In this regard, brands looking to use Twitter for customer service should make their accounts easy to relate with by attaching a real name and face. Both Sprint and Comcast follow this credo and have their employees tweet from accounts that often include their first names and a photo.
"We had a lot of debate about that," Sprint's Goldsborough says. "Especially in our industry, where customer service is so important, and we're really trying to change our image in that field. We decided that people wanted to talk to a person and build a relationship, instead of just talking to a brand."
Goldsborough also points to the Edelman Trust Barometer, which indicates that trust in corporations is at a 20-year low. Closer to the top are actual employees who are talking about brands. If consumers are looking to connect with someone like them, it's best to put your real face forward and show the human side of your company.
Goldsborough tweets under the account @JGoldsborough, where he regularly engages with Sprint customers about issues they may have, but also shares his love of the Kansas City Royals and Bon Jovi. The other four members of the Sprint Twitter team use their real names as well, and often send their tweets through both their personal accounts and corporate accounts (more on that later).
"Whenever people are frustrated with their service and they're trying to find help or they're angry, I think it's easier to diffuse a situation when you're talking to an actual personality rather than a brand and a corporate logo," Sean Doherty, Sprint's manage of social media and interactive communications, says.
Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, decided to give their main Twitter account, @comcastcares, a name and a face after receiving user feedback. When Eliason created the page, he simply ran a Comcast logo. It was only after receiving feedback from others on Twitter that Eliason decided to change his profile, and he's become synonymous with Comcast's customer service success. Now, the other 9 members of the team tweet with their names preceded by Comcast (ex. @ComcastBonnie, @ComcastBill), so consumers know exactly who they are addressing.
"There's a personal side to social media," Eliason says. "You can relate it to customer service calls. We're not going to answer a call and say 'Comcast, what do you want?'"
It should be common knowledge by now that Twitter and all social media are always on. Conversations are happening at a constant clip, which means you need to be checking in on a regular basis.
Comcast's team takes shifts covering the Twittersphere, maintaining a watchful eye from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. EST. But monitoring social media doesn't necessarily mean you'll have to sit and stare at a computer screen 24 hours a day waiting for something to happen. Sometimes it can mean as little as checking an hour a day.
"Doing it on a daily basis is probably fine for most people," McVey says. "But if you have a time-sensitive business, five minutes every hour for the work day might be better for you."
If your goal is to assist customers, which should be the case with any customer service channel, you need to be prepared to do so quickly. "Direct messages are coming in, and if you're not answering them, that's bad," McVey says. "You don't want to turn people off that way."
Sprint has 48 million customers, but Goldsborough isn't spending every waking hour staring at a screen. When he gets to the office in the morning, he launches his email, opens an internet browser, and then launches TweetDeck, a third-party desktop client that lets users monitor their Twitter feeds, direct messages, and searches. He'll periodically pop into Twitter throughout the day to see what's happening.
"I have trouble sitting down for more than a half hour," he says. "It's almost like I want to take a break for five minutes, so I'll see what the chatter is on there."
With urgent issues, Goldsborough will often devote some time immediately to make sure the problem is resolved quickly. For smaller issues, he'll send a response back to the user and pop back into what he was doing before, waiting for the dialogue to develop so he can help accordingly.
At the same time, it's important not to stretch yourself too thin. Social media's very nature means someone will always be unhappy, and you can only spend so much time trying to please people, according to McVey.
"The ones you want to make sure you fix are where you didn't meet an expectation that was a real expectation," she says. "If you didn't uphold your promise in any way shape or form, you need to do what it takes to uphold it."
Use the available tools
Of course, if you want to monitor Twitter constantly, you need a means to do so, and following thousands of consumers just to get a pulse on their issues and concerns isn't practical. Luckily, there are a slew of handy tools that make managing a customer service operation all the more possible.
Thanks to some recent purchases by Twitter itself, a live, up-to-the-minute search function is available right on the Twitter homepage, alongside the 10 most popular topics. For Comcast's Eliason, the general rule of thumb is to use Twitter search to find what people are talking about. "Twitter is asking a question: 'What are you doing right now?'" he says. "Twitter search provides so much information for your brand, in real-time -- the here and now. It's an invaluable tool."
Eliason often tweets directly from the webpage and is constantly searching for Comcast-related tweets. Other Comcast employees use TweetDeck -- beneficial for customer service as it lets users simultaneously view their followers, direct messages, and live searches.
Other Comcast employees use tools like PeopleBrowsr, which lets you manage Tweets with a Microsoft Outlook-style navigator, and services like Radian6, which lets users monitor social media mentions and conversations.
Sprint's Goldsborough is a TweetDeck user himself, and the company is taking part in the corporate beta of a new tool, CoTweet, a solution provider for companies that want to run corporate accounts. Through this tool, the Sprint team can tweet from their personal accounts, tag the tweet "Sprint," and it will appear in the corporate account saying "via @JGoldsborough," connecting the corporate account to the person behind it.
Using Twitter to expand your customer service offerings is remarkably easy. Your strategy can be as simple as one dedicated employee popping in for five minutes every hour to check the pulse, or as complicated as a team of 10 covering the Twittersphere from morning until night. The tools are available, and the solutions are simple to implement. Consumers are already talking about your brand and searching for help -- you're merely going where they are. The most difficult part is laying out your goals, deciding what you want to accomplish, and creating the trust that consumers are looking for.
But perhaps the soundest piece of advice is once you have a plan, implement it. "Try and get out there," Sprint's Doherty says. "Don't be afraid to stumble out of the blocks. As long as you're making a good faith, transparent effort, and you're authentic, people will give you benefit of doubt."
Rich Cherecwich is associate editor, iMedia Connection.
On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.