When a Stanley Cup broadcast suddenly went black in late April, many Comcast subscribers simply scooted to Twitter to find out why.
It was there — not on a phone system with multiple options — they discovered that a lightning storm in Atlanta had caused a power outage during the Philadelphia Flyers-Pittsburgh Penguins hockey playoff game, and that the transmission would be restored soon.
"I did a search on Twitter as soon as the game went off the air," says Dave Decker, 31, a Web developer in Pittsburgh who regularly tweets while watching sporting events. "The mystery was resolved in minutes. Before Twitter, it would have been a nightmare trying to find out what happened on the phone."
Comcast's deft use of Twitter underscores what is becoming a staple in modern-day customer service. Increasingly, corporate giants such as Comcast, PepsiCo, JetBlue Airways, Whole Foods Market and others are beefing up direct communications with customers through social-media tools such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.
The popular communications technology has helped companies quickly and inexpensively respond to customer complaints, answer questions and tailor products and services. It has supplemented current customer services, easing the load on call centers and expensive mailers that most consumers abhor. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and online software services such as LiveOps, Salesforce.com and RightNow Technologies are all are being used to improve customer service, retain users and gain a competitive advantage.
"If you're trying to hide from your customers, don't use Twitter," says Demian Sellfors, CEO of Media Temple, a Web-hosting service. "We want to know what our customers think, both good and bad. That's a good thing."
As more companies effectively use social-media tools for customer care, it also is becoming easier to shift customer-relations resources to the U.S. and feed into the fledgling "homeshoring" trend. Home-based workers have become de rigueur among employers to take advantage of better technology, gain productivity from employees no longer tied to long commutes and leverage the expertise of local workers.
There are about 200,000 so-called homeshored jobs — most of them in the U.S. — and more than 300,000 are expected by 2012, says Stephen Loynd, program manager for contact center services research at market researcher IDC.
"The competitive landscape for customer care is subtly changing because of technology like Twitter," Loynd says.
Changing with their users
As Americans — especially younger ones — flock to Twitter, the companies that sell them goods and services are following them. Those companies view social-media services as the ideal vehicle to air comments, gripes and suggestions.
"It's where a lot of our younger customers are," says Bonin Bough, PepsiCo's global director of digital and social media. His position and title changed eight months ago, reflecting the changing face of customer service.
In this emerging world, Frank Eliason is something of a legend. For more than a year, he has helped pioneer the use of Twitter as a customer-service resource at Comcast."We can see in real time what our customers think, and learn from them," says Eliason, director of digital care at Comcast. He leads a team of 10 people for @comcastcares, which has nearly 24,000 followers.
"Social media is a natural extension of customer service," says Bill Tolany, global coordinator of integrated media at Whole Foods Market. It has more than 50 Twitter accounts, tweeting on topics as specialized as cheese.
"The more ways you provide customers to contact you, you're more likely to satisfy them," says Elissa Fink, vice president of marketing at Tableau Software, a business-software maker that began using Twitter to improve customer service. "It shows you're listening to them."
For many, call centers are out of the question — too frustrating, with long waits — and e-mail is too slow in an era of instantaneous online communications.
In some cases, Twitter is nurturing relationships between retailers and customers. Consider Shelley Risk, a 29-year-old public-relations rep in San Francisco. When she ordered a designer sweater that proved to be defective, she tried to contact ideeli, the online retailer from whom she bought it. But she couldn't find a phone number on the company's website, and an e-mail message was not answered immediately. So she reached out to ideeli's Twitter profile. Within 24 hours, the problem was resolved.
Social-media tools are fostering customer service through:
•Direct sales. Dell says it has sold more than $2 million worth of PCs through its @DellOutlet account (over 710,000 followers) on Twitter since 2007.
•Up-to-the-minute service details. Twitter can function like a real-time search for airlines and others. For example, JetBlue (@jetBlue; over 730,000 followers) assiduously answers traveler queries about flight times, delays and weather updates. "It's like an early-warning system," saysspokesman Morgan Johnston.
•Customer feedback that leads to enhanced services. Starbucks is using a blend of social media via Twitter (@Starbucks; over 230,000 followers), Facebook (3.2 million fans) and its own social-networking site (MyStarbucksIdea.com) for product ideas and feedback. Splash sticks, the company's new plastic plugs for sip holes, were created in part through feedback.
Through social-media forums on Facebook and Yahoo, PepsiCo asked customers to visit its DEWmocracy website and vote on one of three choices for a new Mountain Dew flavor. More than 350,000 voted last year.
•Online communities to exchange comments. Facebook and MySpace, through their respective services, offer massive bulletin boards for consumers to weigh in on major brands.
Dunkin' Donuts actively manages a fan page on Facebook with more than 825,000 fans. It used the page extensively to complement advertising and e-mail to inform customers on a new line of healthy foods and an iced coffee day event in April.
Harley-Davidson's corporate profiles on MySpace (36,000 friends) and Facebook (175,000 fans) let it solicit comments from fiercely loyal customers. Harley also uses Twitter (@harleydavidson; 4,000 followers) and produces videos of its motorcycles on YouTube.
The creation of online communities extends to sophisticated software programs. Salesforce.com is helping 6,800 companies — including Comcast, Dell and Starbucks — build online communities to solicit customer suggestions on how to improve operations.
RightNow Technologies has created a social-media tracking service, dubbed Cloud Monitor, to monitor what customers are saying about brands and their products on Twitter and YouTube; a later version, scheduled for August, will add Facebook, MySpace and LinkedIn.
Whither call centers?
With so many social-media tools available, and consumers increasingly using them, this raises the question: Are call centers, direct mailers — even e-mail — things of the past for customer care? Hardly,say marketing experts and companies.
Though invaluable, social media is just a fraction of a company's customer-service arsenal, says Peter Kim, a blogger who covers the topic.
For perspective, consider the size of call-center operations for major brands. Comcast says it is unlikely to uproot its operations, which employ 25,000 — most of them in the U.S. — in favor of Twitter. "A majority of our customers prefer to contact us by phone," Eliason says.
JetBlue has more than 1,500 call-center employees in the Salt Lake City area, most of whom work at home.
"Twitter is for basic troubleshooting," says Zsolt Katona, a marketing professor at the University of California-Berkeley's Haas School of Business. "Be careful not to ignore those who rely on the phone for customer support."
That hasn't stopped some companies, however, from exploring new ways to ease their dependence on offshore call centers. New technology could usher in specialized customer service.
Several companies with vast call-center operations overseas plan to shift some jobs back to U.S. soil because of advances in technology, says LiveOps President Wes Hayden. LiveOps manages home-based contract workers who staff virtual call centers. The remote workforce approach is similar to eBay's army of specialized sellers — most of whom work at home and are graded on their performance. Among its customers are Kodak and Colonial Penn Life Insurance.
"I am my own boss, and I have the flexibility to work my schedule around my farm and family," says Lisa Hammond, 41, a home-based agent who takes sales calls for infomercials at a 20-acre farm in Goessel, Kan.
New technology also lets some companies plop customer-service reps at special facilities in the U.S. to handle calls. Contact Centers of America is readying a 32,000-square-foot facility with 270 workstations in Orlando that will mostly hire veterans, the unemployed, college graduates and retirees, says CCA CEO Joe Jacoboni.
"Brands aren't about 'messages' anymore," says Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff. "Brands today are conversations — and today the most important conversations are happening ... through social media such as Twitter, Facebook and MySpace."
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