Tech Support Goes Social

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Tweet for Help

Among tech vendors, Microsoft has one of the strongest presences on Twitter. The company's data-mining tools analyze 140 million daily tweets from Twitter users, pulling in messages that mention Microsoft and its products and services, according to a spokesperson for the company. It then applies additional rules and filters to remove nonrelevant messages, such as ads and malware, while retaining tweets from customers who need assistance.

Microsoft's tools separates the tweets that make the cut by language and pass on to Microsoft's team of social media agents, who review them and perform additional filtering to weed out casual conversations that don't require the company's involvement. Finally, a Microsoft support rep contacts customers publicly on Twitter to ask if they need help. If they do, the agent offers online support and "partners with the customer until the issue is resolved," the company spokesperson writes.

For some social media devotees, Microsoft's assertive interactions have a creepy, Big Brotherish feel. After all, the people contacted didn't seek out Microsoft; it sought out them. But the company insists that the opposite reaction is overwhelmingly more common. From January to mid-March 2011, for instance, Microsoft's Twitter team "engaged" with over 5000 customers, 99.99 percent of whom expressed "extreme positive reactions to our offer of help," claims the spokesperson.

We're Listening

As anyone who has used Facebook and Twitter knows, each service has unique attributes. When it comes to tech support, Facebook is better for building a community of customers, some of whom will offer troubleshooting tips and other advice to their fellow users. Twitter, on the other hand, "is much more of a listening piece," says Chris Baccus, executive director of digital and social media at AT&T. "We are out there watching the comments, watching what's happening about mentions with our brand."

AT&T currently assists about 4000 customers a month via social media platforms, which include Facebook, Twitter, and numerous blogs. "We've been seeing a gradual increase each month, and some months are a little busier than others, depending on what's going on in the marketplace," says Molly DeMaagd, AT&T's director of social media.

Companies recognize social media's power to make or break their reputation. "Twitter is an early-warning system," says Dan Anderson, T-Mobile’s social media manager. "As a cell phone company, if there's a network issue, we'll hear about it right away."

Sprint reads its reviews, too. "Absolutely, we monitor comments on social sites. We don’t catch them all--but we do our best. I would say we are most active in monitoring Twitter, Facebook, and the Sprint Community [forums]," says Sprint spokesperson Rich Pesce.

"In many ways, I think [social media] is a new form of the focus group," T-Mobile’s Anderson adds. "Instead of having to bring people into a room and ask them questions, your customers are proactively telling you what they think. And you get that feedback right away."

T-Mobile, which AT&T recently agreed to buy for $39 billion, claims to reach 140 million people every month through the cumulative reach of its social media programs. "It's larger than our customer base," says Anderson. "It shows the viral nature of social. We love it because it's not only a way to communicate with our existing customer base, but there's a sales potential as well."

'Like' Me, Even If You Don't

Close to 1.4 million Facebook members "like" AT&T's Product/Service page. But peruse the discussion forums there, and soon you'll discover that many visitors aren’t exactly adoring fans of the telecommunications giant.

AT&T's Facebook board lists more than 1700 user-generated topics ranging from the inoffensive ("LTE") to flame-thrower material ("Horrible Customer Service"). The company responds to all customer queries and complaints, no matter how incendiary. "We'll answer questions or clarify questions for either posts that we make or posts that our customers and fans make on the page," says Baccus. "If there is a question out there, we're addressing it in a rapid, intelligent, and personal way."

Patty Manning Lennon got results from a fiery post on AT&T's Facebook page.
But execution is everything, and a poorly constructed "personal" reply may backfire. In March, Patty Manning Lennon of Danbury, Connecticut was fed up with the slow speed of her AT&T DSL service and with the failure of the company's technical support staff to correct the problem. She decided to bid AT&T a fiery adieu online. Here’s a snippit from Lennon's snarky farewell post on AT&T's Facebook board:

"It will explain why I'm leaving you now," her post read. "So many have already left and more will follow. If you don't care about your customers, it will show. I'm taking my internet, phone and iPhone service with me. Farewell!"

Lennon, a life coach and entrepreneur who runs the Mom Gets a Life Website, posted a similar goodbye on Twitter. AT&T responded in both instances, albeit differently. Its Twitter reply came from an actual AT&T customer service rep, who asked to discuss the matter privately via Twitter's direct-message tool. The Facebook response, however, didn't come from a particular person and seemed less sincere to Lennon. It read: "Hey Patty! Thanks for posting on our wall. So sorry to hear that you are leaving us... anything we can do to assist you today? We are here to help."

AT&T's Twitter response persuaded Lennon to give the company a second chance to win her back. "You actually have to connect with people in a way that feels humanizing," she says. In other words, a company that botches its social media message isn't going to persuade its customers to remain loyal.

"There's a certain personal connection you get, even though it's online, when a company reaches out to you and personally addresses your issue," says T-Mobile's Anderson. "It leaves you with a better impression of the company."

And when it doesn't, the opposite is true.

Looking Forward

So what does the future hold for social support? It's here to stay, but it won't replace conventional support tools. For instance, Dell says that the goal of its Social Media Command Center isn't to replace traditional support methods, but rather "to be there for customers" who want to contact the company via social networks.

"I think [social media] is a companion," says AT&T's Baccus. "And the reason why is that some people want the personal communication of the human voice."

For many tech companies--including HP--Facebook and Twitter are simply new front doors to route customers to traditional support operations. Other businesses, like AT&T, proactively interact with their customers online, attempting to bypass a creaky support infrastructure--like the dreaded phone tree--to solve users' problems faster.

Within a few years, social support teams will likely merge with standard support operations, a combination that could improve customers support overall.

"Right now, our [social media] team is separate from the call centers," says AT&T's DeMaagd. "But one of the things we're going to look at is integrating it more with the call centers."

The question is whether tech companies will have enough staff to handle the growing number of social media users. As IDC's Stergiades points out, an army of social-media watchers may prove to be a very expensive undertaking for a tech company focused on the bottom line.

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