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I've never been a big proponent of the many organizations who rushed into Twitter to deal with all the negative tweets about their brands or services. Often times this was a directive of the PR department who looked at Twitter as a channel to manage online reputation.

While reputation management is a part of a good social strategy, I've always felt in my gut that it's impossible for the communications department to serve as de facto customer service/tech support/consumer complaints personnel solely based on a familiarity with the channel. Planning a Twitter presence should be part of a broader communications and/or social strategy. It should based on customers' journeys with your brand over time and ladder up to how you want your brand to be perceived in the long term.

Figuring out how to deploy Twitter isn't as straightforward as setting up an account. Every brand has different needs and requirements in the space. Sometimes you need to have multiple Twitter accounts to talk to multiple constituencies i.e. consumers vs enterprise vs developers and sometimes you've got geographic or language considerations to think about. In my view many brands have been too literal with their customer-oriented Twitter handle. Using "Cares", "Helps", or "Support" are very restricting, though commonly used. Your handle is less important than the speed of response and the quality of the interaction with your customers. That's what really matters in customer service.

Thinking about a longer term relationship over a short term customer transaction will get you thinking of handles like "Ask", "Connect", "Talk", "Voices" or simply your brand. I have three concerns with the path many brands have charted and others have quickly followed that are great for customer service and not-so-great for building a long-term relationship:

  1. Creating a fast-track customer service hotline
  2. Sharing the knowledge
  3. Putting their brand on the back foot

Customer service hotline

My biggest worry is that by being reflexively defensive in Twitter, brands would be providing a customer service hotline to those who either gave up on other channels (60 minutes on hold, anyone?) or figured a public social media space provides the right level of public shaming to get a reaction from a big company.

I know brands have ventured into this space with the best of intentions with “Cares”, “Helps” and “Support” suffixes on their Twitter handles have struggled with how to scale for the volume of interactions and simply keep up. Many have integrated customer service staff right into their Twitter teams, which is a move in the right direction. But what if you outsource support to call centers with a transient staff that follows a script and refers to a manual?

Even the celebrated Comcast example had some problems with scale. Tara Hunt, blogger and author of The Whuffie Factor noted in a presentation a few years back that only one-third of tweets to @comcastcares were being answered. This was at the height of Comcast’s celebrated use of social media for customer service. A recent study from Maritz/evolve24 shows that consumer expectation of receiving responses to Twitter-delivered complaints is growing.

Have the early adopting brands modeled a new consumer behavior based on how they approach the channel or are they simply reacting to where the consumer is most comfortable “complaining”? Either way, if each complaint takes 10 minutes to deal with and you get 60 complaints in a day, you’ll need 10 hours to deal with them all. If the trend continues companies will either need to train customer service staff to be proficient in Twitter or train their Twitter staff to be proficient in customer service.

Sharing the Twitter knowledge

Companies have invested in creating extensive knowledge bases, FAQs, and user forums on their main domains. They aren’t all perfect. They aren’t all well organized. But there is a wealth of information there. If you take the opportunity to add to the knowledge base away from the main domain and deal with issues on Twitter you’re giving up a huge opportunity to capture that knowledge for your broader consumer base as Twitter doesn’t keep all of its tweets searchable forever.

If I’m spending 10 hours helping consumers, I want to make sure the interaction is captured, indexed and easily found by someone with the same or similar problem in the future. Luckily, there are solutions like Lithium that allow for community managers to connect Twitter and Facebook with brand communities on main domains so that there is a seamless ecosystem and the ability to capture knowledge centrally while sharing it through various social channels.

Brands on the back foot

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against customer care or using social to connect with and solve problems for your customers. I’ve been helped many times by blurting something out on Twitter…and other times I’ve been directed to content that was completely irrelevant. It’s not easy dealing with a one-to-one problem in a public space. The margin for error is zero and the upside is a consumer who feels listened to and looked after stays loyal. With the rush to be present in the social conversation many brands have jumped in to the social spaces to help.

The best known and most followed tend to be the customer service accounts (@ComcastCares >54,000 vs @ComcastVoices >2,400). While this approach served an immediate need, it hasn't translated into a real relationship with the brand beyond the need for assistance. I’d caution brands not to join social spaces with a vision solely to helping in the now. It puts your band on the back foot. Think about the future. Once you’ve helped someone on your “Cares” account, they won’t be sticking around to connect with the brand in other more meaningful ways. They’ll be back when they’ve got another problem, but the only relationship you’ll ever have is based on being a troubleshooter.

I've got no axe to grind with Comcast.  In fact, their leap into the social space has been the inspiration for many other companies to start talking with their customers through social media channels.  But as much early-adopter cred they've gained, I bet they wish they entered Twitter with @ComcastVoices or @Comcast and built followers for a handle that gave them the ability to add value to the relationship after the initial issue was fixed. I can understand that some brands want to keep the customer issues away from the master brand, but in social we need to look at all interactions as marketing touchpoints and not be shy about showing how we solve problems for angry customers.