This will be the first holiday season that social network customer service - companies that use Twitter or Facebook to augment more traditional customer service operations - will be truly tested.
Last year only a handful of major companies, including most notably Best Buy, had turned to Twitter or Facebook to answer questions about gadgets or return policies. This year dozens of large companies such as Comcast, Dell, Southwest Airlines and AT&T - and their customers - are relying on Twitter to answer questions.
This is good, according to advocates of Twitter and the like: the more robust and multi-faceted the services become, the sooner it will morph into a major communication channel. Assuming that Twitter - and the companies using it as a customer service vehicle - is able to handle the challenge, those high hopes may well be realized.
However, there are worrisome signs that customer service via Twitter may wind up disappointing consumers. And if the failure is widespread, it could taint the platform as a whole for all commercial use.
A Purchasing Guide
There is ample data to suggest that shoppers will be turning to Twitter in growing droves for their customer service needs: this holiday season, after all, many used it and other social networks to guide their purchases in the first place, according to MarketingCharts.
In a weekly holiday survey this month, comScore asked respondents about the influence of social media on their holiday shopping behavior. According to the survey, conducted on Dec. 4-7, 2009, 28% of those who have begun their holiday shopping this season indicated that social media has influenced their purchases.
"Social media really appears to be emerging as an important marketing channel this holiday season," said comScore Chairman Gian Fulgoni. "On the one hand, its emergence is being driven by increased consumer adoption of these technologies and the exponential growth in digital word-of-mouth that is occurring over this medium.
"On the other hand, having a social media marketing strategy makes sense for retailers in this environment because it's cost-effective and shows an effort to get closer to one's customers."
Work in Progress
It remains to be seen how well that attitude translates to post sale service. Customer service through Tweets is still a work in progress, according to Pete Blackshaw, executive vice president of digital strategic services at Nielsen. (via USA Today). Simple put, the companies using it have delivered uneven performance as they try to handle a crush of customer queries, integrate Twitter into their overall strategy and manage the heightened expectations of consumers.
A big problem these companies are finding is that customers that use Twitter for assistance have strong expectations - expectations that have been fueled in part by high profile customer service spats on the micro blogging platform that ended with the company rushing to assuage the Tweeter's ire.
"Companies go in with expectations too high, and they risk disappointing customers who don't get prompt replies," says Lloyd Trufelman, president of Trylon SMR, a public relations firm for media companies, according to USA Today.
In fact, there are signs that some companies are becoming less inclined to coddle customers that complain or seek help on the site, preferring to send them to traditional service channels. Morgan Johnston, a spokesman for JetBlue who helps manage its Twitter account said he didn't want Twitter to become a "back channel" for passengers to "sneak around" customer service. Rather, he views JetBlue's Twitter profile as an "information booth" to point customers in the right direction. (via the New York Times).
Help in 140 Characters
Companies that have set up specific service apps for Twitter - Best Buy's @Twelpforce, for example - aren't likely to push customers seeking assistance to websites or call centers. But they could have other problems - namely solving a technical issue in 140 characters. That can be hard, says Toby Richards, head of Microsoft's community and online support, according to USA Today. Its @MicrosoftHelps, devoted to Windows 7, has 3,500 followers. There are plans to beef up support for non-Windows 7 products as well.
"It's like being a high-tech concierge," he says. "Our Tweets have links to solutions. The essence is for followers to help one another."