Brand Perception: Modern Customer Service on Twitter Is Also PR

Man logging into Twitter on his cell phone.
Man logging into Twitter on his cell phone.

Now that consumers expect customer social media customer service on Twitter, PR pros should improve brand perception and deepen relationships with a highly engaged audience. Here we touch on the evolution of asking for help on Twitter and highlight brands you can learn from.

Wondering how to improve brand perception? Start by going to where customers are

As communication pros we know it’s PR 101 to be present where our customers and potential consumers are. Increasingly, that means social media. Numbers make this coupling inevitable, according to Pew, an estimated 69% of people in the US use social media and an estimated 77% of people own smartphones.

With this reality, it’s a foregone conclusion that your business needs to be on social media and if you have a consumer-facing business, your customers are likely asking for your help via Twitter (or Facebook). This is why offering a high level of social media customer service is now critical.

Even if your brand would prefer to silo social accounts to fit specific communication purposes, a brand needs to evolve based on the demands of your customers and community-at-large. Twitter started out with the intention of creating a platform for broadcasting and amplifying messages, but early on, as soon as conversations and debate took hold, it became a major conduit for social media customer service as well.

In fact, one of the first Twitter post prompts was: “What are you doing?” In retrospect, it might have pushed early adopters to complain...

The Early Adopter, Maytag’s Lesson:

Case in point, Maytag. A brand whose ad campaigns have often included the lonely repairman (since he is never needed). Back in 2009, well-known blogging influencer, Heather Armstrong, was pulling out her hair trying to get replacement parts for a $1,300 washer and asked a telephone service rep if it would help if she mentioned her woes on Twitter? Despite an assurance that it wouldn’t, she decided to broadcast her frustration to her 1 million followers anyways.

Soon a Whirlpool VP (Maytag’s parent company) was on the phone, ordering her a new repairman and the next day, her washer was back in working order - anything to save avoid tarnishing brand perception! Maytag (and Whirlpool) learned a quick lesson that day; influencers have an engaged audience that responds when they tweet. Try to ensure that they don’t shout negative things about your brand.

For early social media adopters/influencers, a new approach to getting social media customer service began to form. Start by emailing or calling the company, go through the phone tree, and try to get a resolution. If you hadn’t received customer service within 24 hours, call them out on Yelp, Twitter, or via their Facebook page.

But as the lines between communication platforms began blurring, it seemed more efficient to go straight to social media. Maybe it was because early adopters/influencers were getting better service in less time, while regular consumers felt left out. (Everyone wants customer service right away.) What had seemed like a luxury of the few, started looking attainable to more and more consumers who saw the power of complaining on public channels.

Setting a Baseline, Comcast:

Maybe it’s telling, the first time Comcast was mentioned on Twitter, it was in the form of a complaint about waiting in line.

To address complaints that were organically appearing on the platform, their marketing/ PR team set up @ComcastCares in March 2008. Making them an early corporate adopter with a dedicated service channel. (Contrast that with the launch date of November 2009 for the brand account, @Comcast.)

Comcast pioneered acknowledging a complaint and asking if it can be moved to 1:1 interactions via direct messages. This practice was enabled by Twitter adding direct messaging and then separating out @ replies. This formula is still something they and other high-volume social media customer service accounts practice today. Comcast illustrates how customer service is often built into an identity of a brand. And having a social media strategy for answering complaints is bound to help some of your customers’ pain points.

While Comcast isn’t a model of transparency, companies have followed their direct approach on Twitter. Unfortunately, by cleaving customer service from their main account, @Comcast, they’ve drawn a thick line between PR and customer service. Of course, being seen as a utility comes with the expectation that you’re equipped to be an always-up business. So, it’s possible that with the high volume of customer service that Comcast deals with, they are in a constant state of catch-up. And though @ComcastCares can feel automated, sometimes a quick acknowledgment is all that is needed to send a positive message to a customer looking for a solution.

Going the Extra Mile, Southwest Airlines:

Even though Southwest Airlines had a couple of small PR blips in 2017, sentiment for their customer service on Twitter skews towards positive.

Airlines are masters of social media customer service. Even if airline customer service is not industry consistent, consumers are now primed to request and importantly, receive, help before, during, and after their travels via social platforms.

In this realm, Southwest Airlines is ruling the roost. While the airline has been known for good customer service, being on Twitter has only added to their brand perception.

They freely use the enhanced customer service features, such as the Send a Private Message link, making it easier to immediately help individuals with their travel arrangements. And once in awhile, @SouthwestAir reaffirms that there are humans behind the brand, helping out customers and something fun like this gets reshared:

Or an audience call-out is rewarded:

On Twitter at least, Southwest is showing other airlines—let alone other brands—how to endear yourself to followers. And with 2.19 million followers, they’ve been able to, without missing a beat, use the same branded account for broadcasting flash sales, announcing corporate social responsibility initiatives, and flight delays, all while still helping customers with individual flights.

The Innovator, BART:

@SFBART social media (Facebook, Twitter, and forums) sentiment according to Meltwater media intelligence platform, Jan. 1-Dec. 31, 2016.

Creating a groundswell of positive kudos on social media can feel impossible for marketing and PR pros in today’s climate. It might feel like all you can do is try to keep the crises at bay. But, the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system found unexpected acceptance by doing away with auto-responses on Twitter, and instead opted for a frank conversational tone. It happened on March 16, 2016, during the evening commute, in response to a complaint about massive delays. An electrical issue took out a portion of track and required the system to borrow buses. In the moment, the cause behind the delays had not been shared. Christopher Chappel (@shakatron, now private) may have thought he was yelling into the void with this tweet:

But instead, he received a very thoughtful, very human response. Riders and social media reacted with excitement . Suddenly it became a BART system AMA (Ask Me Anything) as questions, thoughtful answers, and opinions were lobbied back and forth.

On that night, BART social media history was being made. Prior to this evening, the transportation system’s Twitter account was automated and didn’t directly interact with customers, let alone discuss the challenges of the system’s infrastructure. Later, articles proposed that the exchange(s) were the result of a social media manager “going rogue”.

Turns out this new frank tone signaled a change in how the comms team would approach their Twitter interactions with the public. And while the thumbs behind @SFBART that evening decided to take his commute elsewhere, the humanity behind the account is still in place. The team, managed by Alicia Trost, still helps individual users, broadcasts community wins, interacts with other transport agencies, and even apologizes for problems on the system.

PR & Marketing Takeaways:

There is no way to avoid dealing with customer service issues or complaints on Twitter. To protect a brand, it’s essential to keep up on the platform to make sure we’re utilizing all the features they offer to streamline processes, whether that is for broadcasting and engagement or customer service. If you’re new to dealing with customer service on Twitter, learn from the examples above and take detractors seriously. If you’re open to going the extra mile, synch your PR messaging strategy with customer service to build positive brand perception. You may want to take your cue from @SouthwestAir and @SFBART in remembering that we’re all in this together.