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Your call is not important to us: how Twitter is revolutionizing customer service

"The best way to predict the future is to create it."

- Peter F. Drucker (1909-2005)

Austrian-born American writer, professor, social-ecologist

When was the last time you had a customer service issue with Air Canada and received a response in 12 minutes?

No, this is not a joke. I mean it - 12 minutes.

And a cheery response, at that.

Now, for anyone who has ever spent close to an hour listening to a computer-generated voice saying repeatedly that "your call is important to us," but that "all of our client-care specialists are currently serving other customers," I can understand the skepticism.

Not every company offers the kind of personal, prompt service that members of an older generation like to wax nostalgic about, particularly after they've had a run-in with a cashier who barely had time to take their money in between texting and talking on the phone.

But in an ironic twist, today's technology lends itself to the very kind of service delivery people enjoyed in the past: efficient, direct and personal.

I've seen the future, folks, and the future is Twitter (at least for now).

During social media training at The Telegram this week, I learned that Twitter is not just about posting inane musings, such as "Guess what? I just shampooed my cat."

You can tweet that, of course, and pretty much anything else you want to say in 140 characters or less.

But the real beauty of Twitter is its ability to deliver current information simply and quickly. You can use it to let people know there's an event about to happen or to provide short updates on storm activity.

You can use it to reach out and help your customers or, as in my case, ask companies for assistance.

(And it's easy to use. Go to www.twitter.com and you will be prompted through the process of setting up an account).

On Tuesday, I decided to do a little market research. I tweeted 10 businesses and entities an identical query: "I have a customer service question. Can you help?"

I used direct messaging to reach companies I was already connected to on Twitter; the other queries went out into the great wide Twittersphere.

The results were mixed, but encouraging. All of the organizations I contacted have a Twitter presence, obviously - though not all of them are using Twitter to respond to requests for customer service.

When I tweeted my query to Newfoundland Power at 12:52 p.m., I received a response 13 minutes later, explaining that they are not yet set up to respond to customers through Twitter, but that they were working on it. They gave me a toll-free number to call in the interim.

My query to Sobeys at 1:07 p.m. received a reply - "Of course Pam. How may I help?" - in 60 seconds. Granted, my follow-up question still hadn't been answered a day later, but it was hardly pressing and at least you feel like there's a live human being out there trying to track down the answer.

(Just so no one thinks I was deliberately wasting customer service reps' time, all the questions I asked were things I honestly wanted to know from entities I do business with).

Between 12:49 p.m. and 1:18 p.m., I had had four Twitter interactions with Air Canada, and they answered my question to the best of their ability.

Between 12:48 p.m. and 3:36 p.m., I had heard from Bell Aliant several times and was given an exact quote on a service I had asked about, with a year-long discount.

The City of St. John's has not responded as of this writing, though I've had great service through its 311 call centre.

And I don't really expect to hear back from Curb It St. John's (the city's recycling arm), given that they only have one follower so far on Twitter - me - and have never tweeted. In fairness, I have had excellent customer service from Curb It St. John's via email, so you can't fault them there.

Still, I was impressed with those who are responding via Twitter, and I encourage readers to tweet for customer service at every opportunity. All the responses I got were friendly, helpful and fast.

Open, for business

Lyle Wetsch, an associate professor of marketing at Memorial University, who is providing training at The Telegram via the Gardiner Centre, likes the Twitter approach because the fact that the interactions are in the public domain helps keep companies accountable.

"Twitter allows customers to make their concerns and connections with companies transparent," he wrote via email.

"This means that there is the potential for increased fairness in how customer service recovery is handled. ... (With) the transparency of social media, there is no way to hide a poor customer service program."

Wetsch also said increased pressure from Twitter users for fast, knowledgeable customer service will likely lead to the demise of international call centres and to an increase in jobs at the local level, as companies scramble to respond to the demand for in-house service.

"All organizations are going to struggle with the resource issue as demands for responsiveness increase," he noted.

"It will be important for organizations to articulate their response time to social media communication and the hours that this is available. This will avoid unrealistic expectations from the customers. At the end of the day, however, the organizations that excel in this will be those that will continue to grow a large and loyal following."

Companies catching on

Wetsch referred to a survey from the American Marketing Association that showed that 36 per cent of the companies polled responded to customer complaints via Twitter in six hours or less; 27 per cent responded in less than one hour (I never thought I'd say this, but thank you, Air Canada); and 11 per cent responded within two days.

He predicts we'll see more of the same locally.

"My experience is that this is a growing area throughout the Internet, and NL is no different, we are a highly connected community and the ability to communicate with organizations through Twitter will only grow," he said.

"I would absolutely encourage people to connect with companies through Twitter and other social media channels. This allows for an increased level of engagement and transparency, which should lead to better business for all."

Imagine: no more tedious hours wasted on hold or being lost in phone directory hell.

No more demon Muzak. No more "Please remain on the line as your call will be answered in priority sequence."

No more: "For customer service, please press extension 107." Ring-ring. Ring-ring. Ring-ring. "I'm sorry, there's no one at that extension."

Sounds pretty darned tweet to me.

Pam Frampton is a columnist and The Telegram's associate managing editor. She can be reached by email at pframpton@thetelegram.com. Twitter: @pam_frampton

Organizations: Air Canada, The Telegram, Newfoundland Power Sobeys Bell Aliant Gardiner Centre American Marketing Association

Geographic location: St. John's

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Recent comments

  • Alison Stoodley
    February 12, 2012 - 10:08

    Agreed! Isn't it fabulous that companies large and small, local and national are realizing the importance of nurturing relationships with their customers? Social media continues to revolutionize customer service and the big winners are consumers.

  • Mike Walsh
    February 12, 2012 - 10:08

    While Twitter has it's advantages - immediate responses and the sharing of up to date information - it can have detrimental affects, particularly if used (or abused) at work. How much productive time is wasted tweeting that you have to pee? Or that you’re peeling a banana. (And let's not get started on the time wasted on Facebook). Like all social media, Twitter has its place. But 75 to 100 tweets during working hours is hardly a constructive use of this or any other social media outlet. I know that some companies have started to crackdown on employees who waste time tweeting or use Facebook excessively during working hours. I don’t think his is a case of Big Brother looking over employee’s shoulders. It’s merely ensuring employees are doing their jobs.

  • Townie
    February 11, 2012 - 08:23

    Perhaps the Twitter respondent was the cashier (ticket agent).