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Why You Can't Deliver Good Customer Service via Twitter

CNN Money/Fortune recently did a revealing (even entertaining), nonscientific customer service test. A reporter contacted eight household-name companies, including Zappos and Delta, with a complaint or inquiry via three different methods: Twitter, phone, and online support. Skipping to the end of the story, by far the most effective customer service came from... the phone, with the worst coming from Twitter.

Even in those instances where Twitter or the Web rated well, there was a consistent theme among satisfactory experiences: Behind the "delivery vehicle" a real person provided real help, real fast.
It's great to have a variety of tools at your disposal. But tools can be used to fix things or to break them; it's how you use the tool that makes the difference. So if you can't hit the target, don't swing the hammer.

Multiple access points of service are great if used properly, but they also represent a promise on the part of the company, and an expectation on the part of the customer. Unfortunately, like so many other modern communication tools, too many companies jump onto the latest bandwagon -- without much thought, planning, or effective implementation -- simply because they don't want to appear to be luddites (Twitter is "hip," so our company must tweet. Bob, get us a Twitter page right away). But as I have said so many times, just because you can doesn't mean you should.

I am admittedly a Twitter-hater. Even if that puts me in a minority, I maintain that it has no place in customer service. Can you answer a customer in 140 characters or less? Perhaps, for very simple questions. Should you? I say no. And the above test bore this out, saying "despite some breathless media reports of a Twitter-driven customer support revolution, we aren't there quite yet."

So where are we? Here are the five most popular communication tools and what I feel are the promises, guidelines and practices that each demands:

  • Telephone: Even with the almost clichéd horror stories of phone support, as the test showed, on balance it still yields the best results. The reason is obvious: It's one live person's voice, speaking directly with another (despite the grief often involved in connecting with that live person), in real time. All companies that charge for a product or service should offer phone support, and all should make it fast and easy to reach a real person, authorized to help and interested in doing so. Stop the madness.
  • Email: If you invite customers to contact you by email, you have an obligation to respond in a timely fashion. I question any company that considers "timely" to be anything beyond one business day. The standard at my company is from immediate to one hour, max, during business hours, and it's very rare that we miss that target. I realize that may not be realistic for every organization, but protracted response times -- two or three days, or a week, or never -- are unacceptable. Don't offer service via an instant medium if you answer in snail-mail time. And when you do respond, do so with a real person providing genuine assistance. Form responses and unsigned replies are not customer service.
  • Online chat: At my company we have become big fans of this, and more and more customers are using it on our site. But again, it is a promise of immediate and real service. If your chat box always says "offline," or you use canned responses, or you don't have adequate staff to answer immediately and effectively, don't offer it.
  • Online self-help: I guess a necessary evil for businesses with vast amounts of information, such as software companies. But if you offer it, make sure it is actually helpful; too many self-help/troubleshooting services take loads of time, only to lead the user to a hair-pulling dead-end. Back up your self-help with real help -- if you charge for your product or service, make a human being easily available.
  • Twitter: If you really must use it, then live up to the real-time expectation. If someone tweets a question, have an attentive person tweet right back. If the customer's question can't be answered in 140 characters or less, give her an immediate and convenient way to get in contact for the more involved service she needs. But preferably, don't use Twitter for customer service. Please.

Whether you choose to use one customer service access point or ten, the key is to put real, responsive people behind the phone or keyboard, or risk having your "we are so with-it" techno-service boasts blow up in your face. If you can't live up to the promises implied by all of these immediate communication tools, use fewer of them. Better to offer great service by phone and email only than to offer 10 slick ways to get mediocre or crappy service.

What are your thoughts on how best to handle multiple customer access points? Please share below.

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(Photo from Seattle Municipal Archives)
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