Twitter Tech Support: How Effective Is Tweeting a Tech Problem?

As the Web becomes increasingly social, more and more companies turn to Twitter to address problems that customers have with their products or services. After all, the last thing a company wants is for a Twitterer's minor problem to go viral across the Internet, just because the company didn't deal with the issue effectively when it had the chance.

According to a study of social media customer service released in March by Sitel and TNS, people are increasingly turning to social media to get their questions answered.

"Social media is dramatically altering the customer service landscape," writes Lawrence Fenley, Sitel's managing director for the U.K. and Ireland, in a statement. "With easy access to real-time information, a new generation of 'always-on' consumers is more empowered and demanding than ever."

The study, which surveyed more than 1000 consumers in the U.K., shows a changing--but not completely revolutionized--landscape. Among respondents between the ages of 16 and 24, the study reports, 7 percent said that the first thing they do when they run into a problem with a product is to complain about it on social media.

This might not sound like a huge number, but take into account that other answer choices on the survey included searching for a solution online and contacting the company directly--both of which involve actively seeking an answer, not just letting virtual friends and followers know that you hate a product or are having trouble with it.

When asked what companies could do to improve customer service, 17 percent of respondents in the 16- to 34-year-old bracket said "respond quickly when I ask a question on Twitter."

Twitter may not have replaced traditional hotlines yet, but it's getting bigger every day. After all, it's convenient, concise, and fast--three things that matter a lot to consumers in today's mobile world. Let's look at how companies use Twitter as a customer service vehicle, and how you can use tweeting to get your voice heard.

Go Forth and Tweet

Hashtag
If you have a problem, question, or compliment for a company, you shouldn't hesitate to tweet it. Companies are doing their best to respond to people who have legitimate criticisms, and to acknowledge people who are excited about their products.

Remember, though, that Twitter is only one method of communication. As John Bernier, partner engagement manager at
Best Buy, says, "Twitter represents a small (but growing and important) channel for us. It's useful in many ways, but it's never easy to answer in 140 characters."

If you're going to address a company on Twitter, here are a few tips:

  • Address the company directly, either via @reply or hashtag.
  • Find the company's customer support Twitter account, if it has one.
  • Ask a question that can be answered quickly and succinctly, or ask for an email address/phone number.
  • Make sure that your question is relevant.

Twitter is great if you have a question, complaint, or passing comment that the company can address quickly (for example, asking Gogo Inflight Internet (@Gogo) for a free flight code, as I once did). But if you have a customer support issue that will necessitate some talking through, you're probably better off picking up the phone.

[Related: "How to Get Free or Cheap Tech Support"]

Does Your Twitter Clout Matter?

So you're ready to take Twitter by storm and start broadcasting your company queries and critiques over the microblogging platform. But what if you're just getting started? You have no followers, you've never typed a tweet in your life, and you're not a "big deal" on social networks. Will companies even listen to what you have to say?

We analyzed customer service-related Tweets from the Twitter accounts of ten large companies--AT&T (@ATTCustomerCare), Best Buy (@twelpforce), Comcast (@comcastcares), Dell (@DellCares), Groupon (@Groupon), RIM BlackBerry (@BlackBerryHelp), Sony (@Sony), Verizon Wireless (@VZWSupport), Xbox Support (@XboxSupport), and Zappos (@Zappos_Service)--to determine whether they paid attention to users' follower counts. In our study, we found that companies answered Tweets from customers with anywhere from 0 to 100,000 followers.

In fact, some companies, such as Zappos, are so eager to answer customer's questions that they even answered Tweets from spam accounts:

Zappo's Twitter interaction with a customer.

So the short answer is yes--if you complain via Twitter, your tweet will likely be heard and addressed, since companies generally do not discriminate against people with fewer followers.

That doesn't mean, however, that companies completely ignore Twitter followings. Companies are more likely to go out of their way to please especially popular Twitter users.

"If I--with 7500 followers--complain about a meal, and then someone else--with 75 followers--complains about a meal, I think it's only common sense that my bad message is reaching 100 times more people," explains social media journalist Jeff Cutler (@jeffcutler).

Cutler says that the person with 75 followers won't necessarily be ignored; but the person with 7500 followers may get better treatment the next time they go to the restaurant, while the person with 75 followers may have to make do with a Twitter apology.

For an example of above-and-beyond Twitter customer service, look no further than Peter Shankman's Morton's Steakhouse story. Last August, Shankman (@petershankman), founder of Help A Reporter Out (HARO), jokingly Tweeted to Morton's Steakhouse:

Two and a half hours later, an employee of Morton's Hackensack met Shankman at the airport with a 24-ounce Porterhouse steak, an order of Colossal Shrimp, a side of potatoes, bread, two napkins, and silverware.

Now, Shankman is apparently a Morton's regular, so perhaps they were just helping out a loyal customer. But it's likely that Shankman's 131,210 followers had at least something to do with the restaurant's reaction.

Next: How Do Companies Use Twitter?

How Do Companies Use Twitter?

Companies don't use Twitter the same way regular people do--that is, they don't sit around Tweeting inane things all day, such as what they're eating for lunch or how boring their commute is.

Instead, companies use Twitter as a way to interact with customers, answer questions, address complaints, and monitor the social Web for trends related to their brand.

Let's take a closer look at a few specific uses of Twitter by businesses.

Responding to Questions

Companies using Twitter for customer support spend most of their time writing responses ("@replies") to questions from customers who have included the company's Twitter handle in their original public tweets (such express references are termed "mentions" in Twitter parlance).

"We respond to every tweet where people need our help," says Christine Morrison, social media manager at TurboTax (@turbotax). "That said, we don't respond to every mention, as some people are mentioning us in passing and aren't expecting a response."

Your questions need not be about a customer service issue. They can bring up anything related to the company's general sphere of knowledge. For example, you can address questions about technology to Best Buy, or questions about shoes to Zappos.

"We attempt to answer any reasonable questions related to technology, but cannot answer questions such as 'Where do I hide a dead body,' which someone asked us once," says Bernier of Best Buy. "If someone Tweets to the @bestbuy account and needs help, we have a team of people there willing to jump in and engage. We try to help as much as possible."

Chatting With Customers

A big part of customer service involves trying to make people feel appreciated and welcome. That's why companies don't limit themselves to fielding questions and addressing complaints: They want to interact with customers more casually and under more upbeat circumstances as well.

"We try to engage with everyone, even if it's just to welcome them to the Seamless world after their first order or to agree on a particularly yummy food choice," says the Twitter team at Seamless (@Seamless), an online food-ordering website that pairs customers up with local restaurants that provide door-to-door delivery.

Companies that provide services also like to congratulate and celebrate with their customers.

"Each day we respond to a handful of complimentary Tweets and say 'thanks' and celebrate alongside our customers, who are excited about being done with their taxes," says TurboTax's Morrison.

Monitoring--but Not Necessarily Responding to--Twitter

It shouldn't come as a surprise, but if you mention a company's name on Twitter, the company probably knows about it. That's because companies monitor Twitter for mentions of their brand name, mentions of their competitors, and general trends that affect them.

Of course, just because you mention a company doesn't mean that it will respond or acknowledge your Tweet.

"Using tools such as Sysomos and HootSuite, we can see just about any public Tweet that mentions our name, tagged or not," says Julie Jarratt, sponsorship PR manager at Esurance (@esurance).

"If we're not tagged, it could be seen as intrusive if we respond to the user. But at the end of the day, [how we react] depends on the context of the Tweet. If it seems like they're having an issue that needs our attention but we haven't been tagged, we'll respond," Jarratt says.

Companies also use Twitter to stay on top of trends affecting their customers.

"From a data standpoint, we're able to get an instant pulse on what consumers are trying to accomplish at any given moment," Best Buy's Bernier says. "And we can identify pain points in that process."

Directing Users From Twitter to a More Responsive Place

Twitter may be fast and convenient, but it's not always the best place for dealing with customers' issues.

Recognizing this, many companies use Twitter as a jumping-off point, and shoot email addresses, phone numbers, and requests for private messages to customers who seem to need more than 140 characters of help.

"If it seems another channel may be appropriate for a customer, we will direct them to that channel," says Bernier. "For example, if we need to look up an order by number, or exchange sensitive customer data that we wouldn't want shared such as name, address, or phone number, we will encourage customers to call or email us."

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