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Social networking not enough for good customer service -- and Comcast's response

Note: Below I've posted this week's Poked column, but jump to the end to read a response from Frank Eliason of @ComcastCares.

We are in the age of social media arrogance.

Companies are banking on Twitter and Facebook to be the saviors of their customer service and marketing. Self-appointed social media experts spend days praising each other's success stories and validating their jobs by spewing lofty answers as to why every company needs to hire experts to manage Twitter and Facebook accounts.

But are companies losing perspective? Is there more to making customers happy than counting Facebook Fans and Twitter followers?

It's a point that online marketer Tara Hunt was preaching to a packed house of 350 at last week's Future of Web Apps conference in Miami Beach. It was a conference for entrepreneurs to learn best practices from one another.

Our weekly Poked column strives to help the business community practice good online etiquette and use social media effectively. But when you just hear about good business examples from Twitter, it can give a false impression that Twitter alone can save your sales numbers.

The truth is, balance between real world and online solutions is key.

Hunt's 15-minute talk gave know-it-all social media marketers in the room a refreshing dose of humble pie. Social media is a Band-Aid -- not a solution. You can't simply say you can lower complaints and improve satisfaction by hiring someone to manage a Twitter account.

One of Hunt's prime examples is the often-lauded ComcastCares Twitter account. I'm the first to say it's a great example of how to use Twitter to help people who are voicing complaints. But if there are enough customer complaints to keep this guy busy all day -- and enough that Comcast has several more people doing that job -- perhaps there's another problem that needs addressing.

If Comcast fixed its problems, several people wouldn't need to do that job, Hunt said.

Cable companies are not exactly known for being the greatest at customer service, so it wasn't a surprise she also criticized Rogers Communications, a Canadian telecom and cable company.

At Rogers, she couldn't reach a customer service representative over the phone, but there were six Twitter accounts to respond to her complaints online.

"Instead of hiring people for Twitter, why not trying hiring people to answer your freakin' phones?'' Hunt said.

Lisa Barone, co-founder and chief branding officer of Outspoken Media, based in Spring Hill, Fla., has been getting buzz this week from her blog post with a similar point: People need to plant branding seeds in more places than Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. Continue your company blog. Keep doing an e-mail newsletter. Because what will you do when Twitter isn't around?

"I talk to small-business owners every day who have a Facebook and Twitter account but that don't have a website,'' Barone wrote. "I read tweets from people about how they've stopped blogging because now they have Twitter and it's `so much easier' to talk to people.''

Barone's and Hunt's views are something every marketer should hear. In this world where social media do have high importance, we shouldn't toss other solutions to the side.

~~~

The next morning, Frank from @ComcastCares reached out to me on e-mail to clarify Comcast's customer service efforts online:

I wanted to take a moment to clarify that Comcast is not "banking on Twitter and Facebook being a savior for Customer Service and Marketing."  Companies that view it this way are off base and not receiving value in the space. ... We listen through a variety of means, which include social media, but also include through standard communications channels and even a way any customer can share feedback through out ask Rick program (View our Contact Us page http://www.comcast.com/corporate/customers/contactus/contactus.html). ... At the same time I agree our service does have room to improve; that is happening and will continue to happen. What may surprise you is most of the customers we deal with in social media never even contacted us before on the topic.

I asked him to elaborate further on how many customers are helped through Twitter before even reaching out to Comcast, and how much time his team dedicates to helping customers on Twitter and other social media. His response (I highlighted some interesting facts in bold):

Each social media space is a little different. Forums for example are really about peer helping peer, often very technical conversations. Listening in that space helps us find out answers to questions we receive in other channels. Twitter and Facebook work as an early warning system, with about 75% or more of the discussions prior to calling. Blogs are more after the fact or feedback regarding products. Blogs are useful for full customer stories, as well as a means for product teams to see what customers are looking for in future enhancements. Places like Get Satisfaction, Planet Feedback, etc are after the fact feedback.

My digital care team is not structured around number of interactions, but instead how they help us improve the customer experience through all communication channels. The bulk of the work that we handle is actually through email. As a means to obtain account information from customers on blogs, we started our team’s email address (We_Can_Help@cable.comcast.com). We do also use it in other social media spaces as necessary (for example when a customer needs more than 140 characters). This creates another communications channel in which we receive about 7,000 emails a month.

My team is responsible for our help forums, which have over 3.5 million page views each month. These are usually people seeking helping from peers. My team moderates our help forums. We also listen in forums throughout the Internet. We even have a private forum called Comcast Direct over at Broadband Reports. This allows Customers that hang out there to get help in a private manner where they already are. Forums in general are about peer helping peer, so typically you will not see us participate in a public manner. Doing so would take away from the community that is there. We will private message if we think we are the best option to help. With all the forums we watch, we review 500 to 1,000 forum entries each day.

We review about 6,000 blog posts each day, with most not having anything to do with Comcast. They show in the search because the blogger has a Comcast.net email address.  We do not exclude them from our search, because we would never want to miss a post in which a customer could use assistance.

Twitter has about 1,500 - 2,000 tweets a day or more. Many of the tweets are not about assistance, but some are. We reach out to 600 - 1,000 people, and we have conversations with about 200 - 300 a day.  We typically only have 1 person on at a time, and we try to cover 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Eastern time Monday through Friday and 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Eastern time on Saturday and Sunday. We see more activity than most companies since we are known for being in the space and spammers like to mention us. Many times when we feel it is spam, our initial response is to email. We know we never hear from them.

I think that provides insight into my little team of 10. ... I do not believe companies should be out here because it is the popular thing to do, or they see it as a space that will save them.  This is a space to have a dialogue in an open and transparent way. This is why customer service makes the most sense at handling these interactions.

I wrote the column this week as a review of refreshing points made at the Future of Web Apps, and also as a call for companies to not only jump on Twitter to solve customer service needs, when in fact larger company problems may need addressing.

I thank Frank for being so specific on Comcast's online customer service strategies and workload.

And as a side note, a member of Frank's team, @ComcastBonnie, just won a Shorty Award last night for customer service -- which is an award for people on Twitter, and finalists are chosen from online votes and a panel of judges.

The online community continues to award the company's efforts on Twitter. But will the Comcast Twitter team need to grow over time? Is it inescapable that a company that large will always need a big team to monitor online conversations?

No matter what you think about the improvements it can make to customer service, or how big that team needs to be, it is clear that they are certainly doing more online than most companies. I'm curious to see the evolution of the online customer service team in the next few years.

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Thank goodness for the Comcast Twitter accounts, they are the ONLY way I ever get any customer service from Comcast. I don't even bother calling Comcast anymore because I know nothing will happen and I'll only get entirely too angry at a problem that should have been easy to address.

If only AT&T had Twitter accounts so I could get some customer service from them. And D-Link. And...

Funny that you bring up Lisa's post from a week or so ago, because she actually talked about @comcastcares in more depth (and in more, let's say... candid terms) back in October:

http://outspokenmedia.com/social-media/twitter-wont-make-you-suck-less/

Her post reads, in part:

"My history with men has taught me that a guy can only cook you dinner once to say, 'I’m sorry'. After that, he’s not sorry. He just knows that cooking you dinner gets him out of trouble. Comcast has been cooking you dinner for a year and a half".

The comments section was pretty spot on as well.

I think the biggest takeaway here is that Comcast (and cable providers in general) really have no incentive to make changes to their core business strategies because they often have implicit monopolies on the markets they service.

Comcast doesn't really want to suck less, because that would be expensive and a huge investment of resources. Comcast just wants to APPEAR like it cares about sucking less. And I don't want to discount what the team is doing here, because this is a very hard thing to do and they are quite good.

If you notice, no one raves about their cable provider, in our eyes... they all suck. Which is mostly true.

We're basically stuck with what we have (particularly if you live in an apartment building or in a certain geographic area). So, from a business perspective, it just doesn't make sense for the cable company to pour tons of money into improving these deficiencies, since they will ultimately get $100+/month anyway (unless they piss you off to the point where you no longer want cable and internet at home, and that's pretty hard to do).

True competition is the only answer here.

what a great post, thanks for the info, something to think about!...

I'm looking for a non-obvious list of 30 companies (with various
different types of business models) that "fit the bill."

Most companies have this trend of promoting their business at some social media sites. It may be helpful at some point. However, it's not the only way to keep the reputation at its peak. There must always be a live interaction between the company and the client for them to know what exactly the client needs.

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